ROME – When Giuseppe Conte left the Italian premier’s office over the weekend, Chigi Palace employees leaned out the windows to warmly applaud him after his more than 2 1/2 years at Italy's helm. His spokesperson turned teary-eyed.
But that’s hardly likely to be Conte’s last hurrah in Italian politics.
Barely a few hours after Saturday's palace ceremony to formally transfer power to Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief now tasked with leading economically-devastated Italy in the pandemic, Conte dashed off a thank-you note on Facebook to Italian citizens. It read more like an ’’arrivederci″ ("Until we see each other again") than a retreat from the volatile, oft-bizarre world of Italian politics.
The mediation-specialist lawyer and academic was unexpectedly propelled into that world by populists looking for a fresh face after the 2018 election.
Indeed, “simple citizen” Conte, as he calls himself now, could be poised to lead what emerges from the splintering populist 5-Star Movement, currently Parliament’s largest party and the major partner in the back-to-back coalitions that he headed until his latest government fell last month.
The Movement, rooted in anti-establishment, anti-EU sentiment, could risk a schism if a good number of 5-Star lawmakers break with its leadership and refuse to back Draghi in mandatory confidence votes later this week. Still, the new premier has wide enough backing from across the political spectrum to clinch the votes.
Meanwhile, Conte might be waiting for an encore of sorts.
“I return to wearing the clothes of simple citizen,” Conte wrote on Facebook, apparently assuming that his elegant suits with a breast pocket, tie-coordinating pocket square qualify as everyday wear.
When the 5-Stars plucked him out of relative obscurity to serve, first as premier to lead a coalition with the right-wing populist League party, then backed him again for his next government teaming the Movement with arch-rival Democrats, Conte dubbed himself “the people's advocate." That was a play on the Italian word for lawyer.
Proclaiming on Facebook that he never lost contact with the sufferings, sacrifices and hopes of ordinary Italians, the 56-year-old Conte insisted after leaving office that it's vital “each of us participate actively in the political life of our country.”
Conte ended his post indicating politics could be his new career.
“The closure of a chapter doesn't stop us from filling, until the end, the pages of history that we want to write,” Conte wrote, ending with what resembled a campaign slogan: “With Italy, for Italy.”
The Rome daily La Repubblica, noting that Conte's post attracted 758,000 thumbs-up in four hours, wrote Sunday that "now he must understand if those hundreds of thousands of likes really mean something more.”
Others had no doubt that politics were in future of Conte, who has spoken openly of his enthusiasm for the 5-Star Movement.
Conte could help cement a center-left alliance that could be “the only bulwark against the victory of the center-right," which is led by former hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, said 5-Star lawmaker Aldo Penna.
Opinion polls repeatedly indicate that Salvini and his allies would triumph in a national election, which is due in 2023. But a return to the ballot box could come sooner, given Italy's fluctuating political dynamics.
Conte enjoyed immense popularity in opinion polls throughout his 998 days in office — a more than decent tenure in the annals of Italy's “revolving-door” post-war governments.
In one survey published on Jan. 23, even as he struggled to revive his coalition, Conte was polling 56% popularity among the leaders that Italians admired.
Polling at the bottom with 12% was former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the head of a small centrist party who pulled the plug on Conte's coalition. Renzi opposed what he contended was the premier's concentrating too much power in deciding how to spend 209 billion euros ($250 billion) that Italy is getting in European Union recovery funds.
Days before he handed Draghi the bell that symbolizes the ringing in of a new Italian government, Conte danced around reporters' questions on whether he sought the 5-Star Movement's leadership. Italian media have also speculated that Conte could form his own party.
“I don't aim for personal or formal titles,'' Conte said. ”What's important is to have a political trajectory, cultivate a political path to offer to the voters and to the country."