New prime minister sworn in to lead populist Italian government

New prime minister sworn in to lead populist Italian government
Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte

A law professor who has never held political office was sworn in as Italy’s new Prime Minister on Friday afternoon, bringing to power a populist new government whose senior figures whipped up anti-immigrant and euroskeptic sentiments in their path to office.

Giuseppe Conte took an oath of loyalty to the Italian constitution in a gilded room in the Quirinal, Italy’s presidential palace in Rome, ending three months of political turmoil.

But while Conte will nominally hold the most powerful office in Italy, the driving forces in his administration will be the leaders of the two political parties that gained the most votes in an inconclusive election in March: the right-wing League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

After initially vetoing the choice of finance minister, Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Thursday evening approved a reshuffled lineup. Conte and his Cabinet ministers were sworn in on Friday, with the apparently unsuitable minister — who had expressed enthusiasm for extricating Italy from the euro — shifted to the less high-profile role of Europe affairs minister.

Conte and his new government will also face a confidence vote in parliament next week. Speaking at the Quirinal on Thursday evening, Conte pledged his new government would “work intensely to realize the political goals of our agreement” and “work with determination to improve the lives of all Italians.”

‘A crucial time for Italy’

The country’s new populist, euroskeptic government is likely to be met with alarm by other European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are both eager to push for further EU political and economic integration.

President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, offered his congratulations to Conte via a statement published on Twitter, writing that his appointment “comes at a crucial time for Italy and the entire European Union” and calling for “unity and solidarity” within Europe.

“I strongly believe that our community will only flourish when based on respectful dialogue and loyal cooperation, which I will do my best to ensure,” he added.

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, also congratulated the new Prime Minister on Twitter, stating that Conte’s premiership marks the start of a “new and important” legislature.

The League has also faced widespread criticism for xenophobic, anti-immigrant policies reminiscent of those forwarded by far-right parties across Europe, including Germany’s AfD and France’s National Front.

League leader Matteo Salvini, who promised during the election campaign to expel half a million illegal immigrants from Italy, has been sworn in as Italy’s new interior minister, while Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio is now labor and economic development minister, a key position to fulfill his campaign promise of a universal basic income.

Hundreds gathered in Rome and Milan on Friday evening in a rally called by the opposition left-wing Democratic Party, or PD, to defend democracy. Many were also there to protest the new government.

Mirko Manico tweeted a photo of demonstrators in Milan’s central Piazza della Scala.

PD politician Valeria Valente posted pictures of the rally in Rome, writing that she was attending “to initiate a clear and concrete opposition to the most right-wing government in the history of the Republic.”

The Democratic Party “was born from anti-fascist and popular cultures that gave Italy freedom and democracy, which is why we are defending the Republic,” she wrote.

A new European crisis?

Italy has not had a government since it went to the polls in March, the longest such period in the country’s postwar history. For weeks, Di Maio and Salvini were locked in talks with Mattarella and struggled to form a government.

During the negotiations, the populists ditched some of their most incendiary campaign vows, such as calling for a referendum on whether Italy should abandon the euro or leave the European Union.

Instead they promised a spending and tax-cutting binge that has rattled investors and could contain the seeds of a new European crisis.

Tensions have also risen between the two parties and the President, peaking as Di Maio called for Mattarella’s impeachment earlier this week following his rejection of Conte’s choice of finance minister.

Born in the southern region of Puglia, Conte lives in Florence, where he teaches civil law at the University of Florence.

When he joined the Five Star Movement during the recent election, he said he supported center-left political ideals. He was mentioned as a potential Public Administration minister in the event the Five Star Movement won a clear majority.