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Italy’s Populists Move Closer to Power, With Little-Known Pick for Prime Minister

Italy’s Populists Move Closer to Power, With Little-Known Pick for Prime Minister

Giuseppe Conte in Rome, before the Italian elections this spring.CreditSilvia Lore/NurPhoto, via Getty Images

ROME — In a significant step toward forming an anti-establishment government in the European Union’s fourth largest economy, the leaders of Italy’s populist parties asked the country’s president on Monday to accept a little-known law professor as their consensus candidate for prime minister.

“The name we gave to the President of the Republic is the name of Giuseppe Conte,” Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, told reporters after meeting with the president, who has the power to reject the nomination.

Mr. Di Maio called Mr. Conte “a professional of the highest level,” intimately aware with the nation’s problems as a child of the peripheral south. Mr. Conte, he said, “is a self-made man and he’s a tough guy. ”

He added, “You all will see.”

A dapper 54-year-old civil law professor with a taste for cuff links and white pocket kerchiefs, Mr. Conte has a long resume working for Roman law firms and associating with top-ranking Vatican cardinals.

But with no political base or government experience, Mr. Conte’s main qualification may well be his willingness to carry out a government agenda agreed upon by the populist party leaders.

That agenda, which calls for lifting of sanctions against Russia, the revisiting of the bloc’s budget rules and crackdowns on immigration, has already sent jitters through European markets and raised concerns that the erosion of the European Union may come from within its western European core.

The nomination of Mr. Conte did not exactly assuage those concerns.

“It’s the first time in the history of the Republic that the candidate for prime minister has been downgraded to the role of spokesman,” Andrea Marcucci, a senator in the soon to be opposition Democratic Party, said in a statement.

If the president, Sergio Mattarella, gives the green light, Mr. Conte will assemble a team of ministers, who are expected to be preordained by Mr. Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, and Mr. Di Maio’s new coalition partner. Both have designs on critical ministries.

Reports in the Italian press suggested that Mr. Matarella still had significant reservations about the direction of the new government. Late Monday evening he convened leaders of the Italian houses of Parliament to meet with him on Tuesday.

But Mr. Di Maio seemed quite pleased with the choice. Smiling broadly under umbrellas outside Rome’s Quirinal Palace, he talked approvingly to reporters about how Mr. Conte, who grew up in the southern region of Puglia, was a known entity to his party’s base.

Mr. Di Maio had proposed Mr. Conte as a potential minister for “the Civil Service, de-bureaucratisation and meritocracy” during the campaign and has known him for five years. ANSA, the Italian state news service, reported that Mr. Di Maio had hired Mr. Conte as his lawyer and that Mr. Conte wrote a good deal of the justice section of the party’s manifesto.

Mr. Salvini said in a Facebook Live monologue Monday evening that Mr. Conte was “an expert in simplification, and de-bureaucratisation, and slimming down of the administrative machine, which is what many businesses ask us.”

During his debut during the campaign, Mr. Conte, who specialized in public administration law, said that while he had voted for left-leaning parties in the past, he was drawn to the Five Star Movement because “today I think the 20th-century ideological outlooks are no longer adequate.”

Over the weekend, Mr. Conte changed the profile picture of his WhatsApp account to a picture of John F. Kennedy with the words, “every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”

His friends said he was a breath of fresh air.

“He has all the credentials,” said Carla Lucente, a professor of modern languages and literature at Duquesne University and the Honorary Consulate of Italy in Pittsburgh.

The Five-Star leader Luigi Di Maio speaking to reporters in Rome on Monday.CreditAlessandro Bianchi/Reuters

She knows Mr. Conte through their work together at the Villa Nazareth, a college in Rome associated with Duquesne University that has deep ties to the Vatican, including past and present power brokers like Cardinal Achille Silvestrini and Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli.

“They know each other very well,” said Ms. Lucente of the prelates and Mr. Conte.

Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus and canon law professor of the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, said Mr. Conte, whom he called “highly talented,” was his lawyer when he bought his house in Italy and handled legal issues at Villa Nazareth for Cardinal Silvestrini, who is the institution’s president.

Two years ago, when Ms. Lucente came to Rome for a Villa Nazareth event with Pope Francis, she said she saw Mr. Conte and his wife and son and noticed he was already a mover and a shaker in law circles. He had “a driver and a beautiful limo,” she said, but preferred to take his bicycle.

She said he spoke excellent English, which is reflected in his resume, with numerous publications, and international work experience.

He lists research at famous universities around the world, including Yale, the Sorbonne in France and New York University, where he said he “perfected and updated his studies” while staying at the college for at least a month every summer between 2008 and 2012.

Asked about Mr. Conte’s experience at N.Y.U., Michelle Tsai, a spokeswoman, said Monday, “A person by this name does not show up in any of our records as either a student or faculty member,” adding that it was possible he attended one or two-day programs for which the school does not keep records.

Amid the dozens of courses Mr. Conte listed teaching on his resume, he included a summer class at the University of Malta called “European Contract and Banking Law.”

That is especially relevant experience considering the potential government’s agenda and the fear, based on the campaign promises and recent statements of the coalition partners, that it will not uphold contracts with the European Union on banking and other financial issues.

But as the populist leaders approached real power on Monday, they seemed less brazen about poking the markets in the eye.

Last week, Mr. Salvini and Mr. Di Maio had mocked the market reactions to their potential government, including the expanding spread on bond yields, which make it more expensive for Italians and Italian banks to borrow money.

On Monday, Mr. Di Maio implored international observers to first give the government a chance before they started criticizing it.

And Mr. Salvini, speaking a few minutes after Mr. Di Maio at the Quirinal Palace, said that foreign countries had “nothing to worry about” and that he only wanted a government that spurred growth and employment in the Italian economy.

Mr. Di Maio and Mr. Salvini both ran for prime minister, and desperately wanted the job. During the campaign they constantly lamented that Italy had not had a prime minister directly elected by voters for years. Five Star in particular rose to prominence over the last decade excoriating professional politicians and presenting itself as a radical change agent.

But now, intent to demonstrate that Mr. Conte reflects the will of the voters, many of whom had never heard of him, they sought to characterize him and the government he would nominally lead as deeply political.

“Giuseppe Conte will be a political prime minister chosen by two political forces for a political government with political figures in it,” said Mr. Di Maio on Monday. “And most of all with the support of two elected political forces.”

But Ms. Lucente said she considered Mr. Conte’s aversion to politics one of his great credentials.

“I never considered him a political person,” she said.

Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Italy’s Populists Offer Professor as Choice for Prime Minister. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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