Italian president calls in contested candidate for prime minister

FILE PHOTO: 5-Star Movement leader Di Maio shakes hands with Giuseppe Conte in Rome ahead of Italy's election
FILE PHOTO: 5-Star Movement leader Di Maio shakes hands with Giuseppe Conte in Rome ahead of Italy’s election, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

May 23, 2018

By Massimiliano Di Giorgio and Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – Italian President Sergio Mattarella summoned on Wednesday a political novice who has been put forward by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and far-right League as their candidate to lead a coalition government.

The meeting with little-known law professor Giuseppe Conte was set for 5.30 p.m. (1530 GMT) and there was no guarantee the head of state would immediately hand him a mandate to become Italy’s next prime minister.

However, the anti-immigrant League indicated that they expected a swift green light from the president after more than 11 weeks of political deadlock following inconclusive elections.

“The League is satisfied by Conte’s summons from the president of the republic. We are ready to get going,” it said in a short statement.

Volatile Italian markets saw renewed selling pressure on Wednesday over fears the League/5-Star program would led to a spending spree that would endanger the country’s heavily indebted accounts and spark a showdown with the European Union.

Italy’s 10-year bond yield, a gauge of political risk, hit a 14-month high, while the cost of insuring exposure to Italian debt rose to a year-high.

5-Star and the League told Mattarella on Monday they wanted Conte to become premier. Instead of immediately accepting their recommendation, the president has taken his time amid concerns over Conte’s lack of experience and suggestions he inflated his academic resume in an effort to boost his international profile.

Looking to ride out the controversy, both 5-Star and the League reiterated their faith in Conte on Wednesday and openly questioned why the president was taking so long to act.

“The president of the republic is not a legal clerk, but nor can he act as the defense lawyer of those who oppose change. That would be a lost cause,” Alessandro di Battista, a leading light in the 5-Star, wrote on Facebook.

RISK FEARS

The League and 5-Star last week agreed on a joint coalition platform, promising to slash taxes, roll back pension reform and boost welfare in a big-spending program that risks putting heavily-indebted Italy on a collision course with Europe.

The European Commission warned on Wednesday that Italy’s financial stability was at risk from possible interest rate increases and political worries.

“Given its systemic importance, Italy is a source of potentially significant spillovers to the rest of the euro area,” the EU executive said in an annual set of economic policy recommendations to Italy and the other EU member states.

Powerful Italian business lobby Confindustria also raised the alarm, saying the nascent government had to show it had a plan to cut the country’s debt pile, the second highest in Europe in relation to output after that of Greece.

“Debt remains our enemy,” Confindustria chief Vincenzo Boccia told a conference in Rome.

If Mattarella accepts Conte as prime minister, he could still put up a fight over the choice of economy minister.

The League has said it wants an 81-year-old eurosceptic economist Paolo Savona to take the position — a suggestion that has added to market alarm over where Italy might be heading.

Savona has called Italy’s entry into the euro zone a “historic error” and wants a “plan B” to be drawn up to allow it to leave the currency bloc if it should prove necessary.

However, a source who has spoken to Mattarella about the eventual government line up, told Reuters the head of state was unhappy about having a eurosceptic as economy minister.

“Savona’s name has not been officially put to the (president),” said the source. But “certain economists with anti-euro and anti-European profiles are not appreciated”.

The president has power of veto over government ministers.

(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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