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  • Instead of immediately endorsing their choice, Italy's President Sergio Mattarella played for time.

    Instead of immediately endorsing their choice, Italy's President Sergio Mattarella played for time. | Photo: Reuters

Published 21 May 2018

The president could have immediately called in the candidate. Instead, his office said he would hold fresh talks with the upper and lower houses of parliament.

Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right League have proposed Giuseppe Conte, a little-known law professor, as prime minister to lead their big-spending coalition government.

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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.

But instead of immediately endorsing their choice, President Sergio Mattarella played for time, seeking further consultations over the appointment as the economic program of the coalition has alarmed markets and the European Union. 

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.

"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.

Their 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.

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.

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 has participated in conferences on justice matters organized by 5-Star. He played no obvious role in drawing up the coalition pact.

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.

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 – and rating agencies – that they might explode Italy's debt and contravene European Union budget rules. 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.

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