Rom He kept the Italians waiting for hours in the middle of the lockdown in March when fear was greatest. Then Giuseppe Conte often appeared in front of the camera with a serious expression late in the evening and gave notice Facebook the next tightening of the curfew and the production stop. His mantra was “stay home”.
Even when public television was involved – that was a new way of political communication. And she was criticized a lot. A head of government who makes official announcements through his Facebook page? Another point of criticism: The government’s long orders and bans came every time by decree of the Prime Minister without asking parliament, only now that Italy has passed the first corona wave, which hit the country hard with more than 35,000 deaths, the regulations are negotiated in parliament.
Nevertheless, the verdict in Italy is positive about Giuseppe Conte, the political phenomenon. A non-party law professor with no political experience, who is now leading the second coalition government and, despite the severe corona and economic crisis, is by far the most popular politician in the country.
It’s been a year since he became prime minister for the second time, this time as head of a coalition government of the left-wing populist movement Five Stars and the social democratic Partito Democratico (PD). For his crisis management during the Corona period, he consistently received good grades, even from political opponents.
The Conte II government has no program
One commenter sums it up: “Conte was insecure and not without flaws, but he did not make any fatal mistakes like Trump, Bolsonaro or Johnson, who initially denied the pandemic and thereby exacerbated it,” writes an economist who owns his Well-read weekly column “The Disrespectful” published without a name.
And the Italians followed Conte – despite the dramatic nightly announcements. With 60 percent he is by far the most popular politician in Italy according to the latest survey by the opinion research institute Demos & Pi for “La Repubblica” from the end of August. His greatest opponent, the head of the right-wing populist Lega, Matteo Salvini, has slipped to ninth place.
Conte did not have time for reforms and a new political course in the coalition, which has now been running for a year, with the exception of the immediate return to the European course to set an example against the previous populist government, which he had also led. It ended when the Lega went into opposition. Conte again took over the business with another coalition partner, the Conte II government – an unthinkable process elsewhere.
Issues such as industrial policy or the refugee problem were left behind. Preventing Salvini’s election victory is the glue that holds the coalition together.
Conte’s success with the people comes solely from the crisis. His first year in the Conte II government was almost entirely shaped by Corona. In January he already imposed a state of emergency in Italy, which is still in force. Advised by countless medical and other experts, he took tough measures: “red zones” were set up in the north, in Lombardy and Veneto, and then everyone was subject to the strictly controlled curfew, longer and harder than in other European countries, and finally the production stop. The Italians accepted it.
Italy was particularly hard hit by the pandemic. More than 270,000 people have been infected with Covid-19 so far. At the moment, Italy is doing better than other EU countries such as Spain and France when it comes to new infections. There will be no second lockdown, said Conte in one of his television messages. He has long since put aside the initial uncertainty, today he appears confident and sometimes arrogant.
Economic development decide
From now on, the prime minister will no longer be judged by crisis management, but by the question of whether he will manage to improve the dramatic economic situation. The nearly three-month lockdown led to a severe economic slump. In the second quarter alone, the economy shrank by 12.4 percent; for the year as a whole, the EU Commission expects the gross domestic product to decline by 11.2 percent.
According to the Istat statistics office, around 500,000 jobs have been lost since the beginning of February. The tourism and catering industries are doing badly. Industrial production is at an all-time low. The budget deficit this year will be even higher than the previously planned 10.4 percent.
A further increase is likely, said Conte a few days ago. According to the Italian central bank, the national debt in Italy is already 2.53 trillion euros. An increase to over 155 percent of annual economic output is expected for the whole year.
The government has so far decided on three aid packages, which, however, are small in volume compared to other countries – after all, the coffers of the heavily indebted country are empty. With around 100 billion euros, the state helps families and companies in need, pays unemployment and short-time allowances for the self-employed, grants state guarantees and liquidity support for private households and small businesses, and finances the temporary suspension of mortgage payments.
“We protect jobs, we support employees, we reduce the tax burden, we help the regions,” said Conte recently at the presentation of the third package with a volume of 25 billion euros.
“A lot has been done on paper to resolve the economic crisis,” says Giuseppe Orsina, director of the Luiss School of Government. But he criticizes: “Because of the still inefficient public administration, you have to see how all the orders arrive in real life.” Time is of the essence, it would have been better to take lean measures instead of decrees with hundreds of pages and just as many paragraphs to write.
Perhaps those responsible would not tackle the reform of the bureaucracy, which in itself is not that cost-intensive, because the effects can only be seen in the medium and long term, notes the former constitutional judge Sabino Cassese ironically. This is “a time frame beyond the current goals of politicians”.
209 billion euros from Brussels should help
So help has to come from outside. That is why Conte was celebrated like a hero in Italy following the agreement at the EU summit on the reconstruction fund. Because the country gets 209 billion euros from the Recovery Fund, 127 billion euros in loans, 81 billion euros in grants, which the country does not have to repay. “With the 209 billion euros we want to get Italy going again, we want to change the face of this country,” said Conte proudly in Brussels after the long summit days.
Since then, the distribution struggle has raged in Rome. The proposals pile up, each ministry wants its share of the cake, even if the money is paid in the coming year at the earliest. “After all, the government, under the leadership of European Minister Vincenzo Amendola, has now stepped up a gear in preparing the projects for the Recovery Fund,” says Pier Carlo Padoan, the former Minister for Economic Affairs and Finance. “But Italy must not succumb to the temptation to increase current expenditure.”
Time is of the essence for Conte. His compatriot Paolo Gentiloni, EU economic commissioner, made it clear on Tuesday at a hearing in the Roman parliament: “Brussels expects drafts by mid-October with which the necessary examination can begin,” he said. “The Commission expects the government, when formulating the reform program, to indicate its choice of projects according to priorities and not to present an ‘expenditure list’,” said Gentiloni. A clear warning.
The contentious coalitionists are already back in campaign mode
So Conte has to present a concrete, resilient program. At the same time, however, he also has to hold together the contentious coalition members who are already back in campaign mode and want to stand out for the regional elections in two weeks’ time. “The government is still lacking cohesion and there is no clear vision for the future,” said Padoan.
However, new elections are not in sight for the time being. And so far Conte has managed to join forces within the coalition. A challenge for the prime minister is his predecessor in office Matteo Renzi, who with his splinter party “Italia Viva” disrupts the majority relationship between the five stars and the PD and whose votes he still needs.
Renzi attacks Conte in his political contradictions, which the prime minister certainly has. The Five Stars Movement, and thus, of necessity, Conte, is currently categorically refusing to apply for aid from the European Stability Fund (ESM) as long as the money from the reconstruction fund does not flow. “Saying no to the ESM is suicide for a country in debt,” comments the Renzi. “I think it is now Conte’s urgent turn.”
If Conte applies for the ESM funds, it means he wants to lead Italy, says Renzi. “If he doesn’t, it means he just wants to run the five stars. The choice is his. ”The next test in his amazing career is coming up for Giuseppe Conte.
More: Italy’s economy is shrinking at a record pace