May 21, 2018 / 8:38 AM / 6 months ago

Italian president hesitates as novice put forward as premier

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right League on Monday proposed Giuseppe Conte, a little-known law professor, as prime minister to lead their big-spending coalition government.

But instead of immediately endorsing their choice, President Sergio Mattarella played for time, seeking further consultations over the appointment of a political novice to head a mooted administration that has alarmed markets and the European Union.

The leaders of 5-Star and the League, who have drawn up a coalition pact aimed at ending months of deadlock after inconclusive elections on March 4, put forward Conte’s name at separate meetings with Mattarella.

“I am very proud of this choice. Giuseppe Conte will carry forward our government contract,” 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio said after leaving the presidential palace.

The joint program calls for billions of euros in tax cuts, additional spending on welfare for the poor, a roll-back of pension reforms and a revision of key EU rules, including those regulating immigration and monetary union.

Financial markets have been spooked by the proposals; Italy’s borrowing costs surged again on Monday, while its stock market touched six-week lows on fears of instability in the euro zone’s third largest economy.

“Let us get to work first and then criticize us. You have every right to do so, but let us start first,” Di Maio told reporters after seeing Mattarella.

The president could have ended the deadlock by immediately calling in Conte and offering him a mandate. Instead, his office said he would hold a fresh round of talks with the heads of the upper and lower houses of parliament on Tuesday.

A source in his office said he needed time for reflection, adding that the president had stressed to the League and 5-Star the important role a prime minister plays leading a government.

Graphic for seats in parliament: tmsnrt.rs/2IGnqpu

COMPROMISE

Conte, who teaches at Florence University, has no political experience but is close to 5-Star, and was one of the people put forward by the party as a possible minister before the election, when he vowed to simplify Italy’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.

FILE PHOTO: 5-Star Movement leader Di Maio shakes hands with Giuseppe Conte, who would be Minister for Simplification of Public Administration with the Parliament in any 5-Star government, during the presentation of the would-be cabinet team, ahead of election in Rome, Italy, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

That was the first time Conte, 54, had appeared in the public spotlight, though he is on the board of numerous academic and judicial bodies and had participated in conferences on justice matters organized by 5-Star.

He played no obvious role in drawing up the coalition pact.

Both the League and 5-Star have vociferously denounced previous suggestions that the next prime minister might be a technocrat, saying that the premier needed to be a politician who had won legitimacy from the ballot-box.

However, Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini each refused to let the other become prime minister, not wanting to appear the junior partner in any deal. After failing to find a political alternative, they settled for a compromise solution.

If Mattarella decides to give his blessing to Conte, the parties could put a cabinet together rapidly and hold confidence votes in parliament later this week.

One of the first tasks ministers would face would be to try to calm investor concerns that they might explode Italy’s already huge debt pile — worth more than 130 percent of annual economic output — and contravene European Union budget rules.

Ratings agencies have already signaled their concern.

FILE PHOTO: League party leader Matteo Salvini speaks to the media during the second day of consultations with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, Italy, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

Fitch said on Monday that having a 5-Star/League government would increase Italy’s fiscal risks, after DBRS issued a similar warning last week.

While markets fret, ordinary Italians appear to want the tie-up. Some 60 percent are in favor of a 5-Star/League coalition government, a Demos & Pi poll published on Sunday indicated, while more than 80 percent of 5-Star and League voters back it, the poll said.

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Gavin Jones; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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