Newcomer struggles to give Italy 1st populist government

Premier-designate Giuseppe Conte addresses the media after a round of consultations to form the Cabinet ministers, in Rome, Thursday, May 24, 2018. Italy's premier-designate Giuseppe Conte spent his first day on the job Thursday finalizing his proposed cabinet list as European officials vowed to judge deeds, not words, from a decidedly euroskeptic and populist Italy in their ranks. (Ettore Ferrari/ANSA via AP)

ROME — The law professor tapped to try to form Italy's first populist government spent a second day in talks Friday, a possible indication the political novice was finding tough going in assembling a Cabinet that could keep rival forces together in a coalition.

Giuseppe Conte returned on Friday evening to the presidential palace, some 48 hours after President Sergio Mattarella gave him the mandate in hopes of breaking a political impasse that resulted from inconclusive elections on March 4.

Neither Conte, who left by a palace back door, nor the presidential office immediately issued a statement. But Italian media quoted palace sources as saying Conte came to confer with Mattarella in "informal talks."

A virtual stranger to politics, Conte was the compromise choice of the two populist rivals who, unable to form a government without the help of the other, joined forces to forge a coalition that could get to work giving Italians tax relief and guaranteed income to poor citizens, even if those measures could balloon Italy's debt to unsustainable levels.

Those rivals are Matteo Salvini, who leads the right-wing, northern-based League, and Luigi Di Maio, head of the 5-Star Movement, whose pledge to guarantee a basic income to the unemployed helped it triumph in the economically lagging south in the elections for parliament.

Salvini, Di Maio and Conte huddled earlier in the day in Rome. "We're working to give a government of change to this country," Conte tweeted, but otherwise was tight-lipped about how his efforts were going.

Nervousness about what could be a government hostile to European Union insistence on fiscally sound measures has rattled the bond markets. On Friday, the benchmark spread of points between 10-year Italian bonds and German bonds climbed past 200 points.

One thorny question has been the choice of economy minister. Salvini has been pushing for a former minister, Paolo Savona, who has likened Italy's being a member of the common euro currency to being enclosed in a "German cage," a reference to Berlin's stress on austerity measures for debt-ridden countries like Italy.

Mattarella, whose role as head of state includes approving a new government's Cabinet picks, is staunchly pro-euro.

Di Maio glossed over any difficulties in agreeing on a Cabinet team, telling reporters that the three were perfectly in synch.

Outgoing Premier Paolo Gentiloni assembled staff Friday to thank them, as his hours in power as the head of a Democratic Party-led government neared their end. The Democrats were trashed in the March elections.

Before wishing all "good luck," Gentiloni had some words of caution to a nation on the brink of a populist-led government. Referring to the Democrats' five years in power, when the Italian economy began growing again but apparently too slowly to convince voters, Gentiloni said that "alas, to go off track, only a few months, or even just a few weeks" is all it takes to reverse recovery.

Shortly before Conte went to confer with the president, Salvini flew to Milan, apparently for family reasons, but another sign that no new government was about to be born. Salvini, thwarted in his aim to become premier, is keen on becoming interior minister to push his League's hard line against migrants.

Earlier on Friday, Conte met with Italy's central bank chief. On Thursday, Conte had met with some of the individual investors who lost their savings after several small banks failed. While the outgoing government has covered a very small part of the losses, Conte says he intends to make awarding damages a priority.

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