After emerging as the clear winner from this summer’s political crisis in Italy, Giuseppe Conte has found himself besieged by problems only eight weeks after resuming office again as prime minister.
While going through a rough patch in bringing coalition parties together on the draft budget law, Conte now has to face the resurgence of right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, a former ally turned enemy.
Salvini’s right-wing coalition gained a landslide victory in Umbria’s regional elections on Sunday, striking a blow to the government coalition led by Conte.
Despite the small size of the central Italian region, the vote was a crucial test for Italy’s ruling parties, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which ran together in an election for the first time.
For Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, the “experiment” of an electoral alliance with the centre-left did not work, and he said that being in a government coalition with the PD or Lega “hurt” his party.
Conte said that the defeat should not be ignored but that what happened in Umbria has nothing to do with his executive and will not affect the government’s stability.
However, Conte was involved in PD-M5S candidate Vincenzo Bianconi’s electoral campaign and spoke at his final rally.
A group photo he agreed to do with Five Star’s Di Maio, PD leader Nicola Zingaretti and leftist Leu Speranza was criticised by Renzi, whose new-born Italia Viva party is still formally in the ruling coalition.
“I don’t like playing tactics, I’d do that picture a thousand times,” said Conte.
But in the aftermath of electoral night in Umbria, Conte got caught up in another complex story that could hurt his reputation as an impartial technocrat-turned-politician.
Just a few weeks before his first appointment as prime minister, Conte provided legal advice to a Vatican-backed investment fund that later found itself at the centre of a financial corruption investigation, the Financial Times reported.
In a document seen by the FT, Conte was reportedly hired by the investment fund Fiber 4.0, in which Athena Global Opportunities, the fund of financier Raffaele Mincione, has a majority shareholding.
Athena was entirely funded by the Vatican Secretariat and had attracted the suspicion of Vatican investigators following an investment worth £129 million to buy a building in London’s affluent Chelsea area with money from Papal state funds.
After a probe, five employees were suspended and the Pope’s security chief was forced to resign.
Conte’s spokespersons immediately sought to dismiss concerns of a conflict of interest. “As for the new facts reported by the FT, it should be noted that Conte only provided a legal opinion,” they said.
They added that Conte was not aware of and not required to know the fact that some investors were linked to a Vatican-backed investment fund now at the centre of an investigation. But Salvini jumped at the opportunity to hit at his erstwhile ally.
“If FT’s reporting were true, even partially, in any country we would have seen the prime minister’s resignation three minutes after [the publication of the story],” Salvini said.
Conte was also involved in another controversial story in recent weeks.
In August, US Attorney General William Barr asked for Italy’s help in the inquiry over a possible tie between President Donald Trump and Russia in the 2016 US elections.
Barr met twice with Italy’s spy chief Gennaro Vecchione in August to request information about the Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, who had a crucial role in the Mueller report into alleged Russian interference in the US election as he informed Trump’s adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had emails in its possession that could damage Hillary Clinton.
Conte, who is responsible for the secret services, had allegedly authorised both meetings.
He spoke in a closed-door hearing before the parliamentary committee for intelligence, where he described the two meetings between Vecchione and Barr as “legal and correct”.
Salvini’s Lega party hinted that Conte had authorised the secret meeting in exchange for Trump’s support during Italy’s government crisis.
But Conte fired back saying that, unlike him, Salvini has not yet clarified his own connections to Russian authorities and secret services.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox]