Italy’s Five Star aimed to ‘replace politicians’ with professor PM

Five Star Movement offers ‘detailed’ policies on HE, but has been attacked as anti-science

May 28, 2018
Giuseppe Conte
Source: Getty

The choice of a “political novice” law professor as Italy’s proposed prime minister showed the anti-establishment Five Star Movement’s belief “that experts and professionals can replace politicians”, according to one academic.

Giuseppe Conte, a professor of civil law at the University of Florence who also teaches at private university LUISS Guido Carli in Rome, was nominated by the Five Star Movement and the right-wing populist League as they joined together to form a government, following deadlock since the election in March.

But Professor Conte – who has described himself as the “defence lawyer” of all Italians – now faces claims that his CV overstates the nature of study periods at institutions including the University of Cambridge and New York University.

Andrea Roventini, a professor of economics, had been reported to also be under consideration by Five Star for the nomination.

On 27 May, Mr Conte withdrew his nomination for the premiership, after Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, vetoed his proposed choice of finance minister. 

Proposing an academic for the post evidenced one of Five Star’s key ideas, that “experts and professionals can replace politicians”, said Fabio Bordignon, a political science professor at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo, who has published research on the “normalisation” of the party.

This belief was “clearly visible in the early stages of [Five Star’s] political experiment”, although the party had since gone through a more populist phase of calling for “ordinary people [to] replace traditional political elites”.

Piero Ignazi, a professor of political science at the University of Bologna, said Professor Conte was notable for his establishment credentials and his nomination was part of a strategy from Five Star and League “of finding an agreement acceptable to the establishment in general”.

The New York Times, which first raised questions around Professor Conte’s CV, reported that he “has a long résumé working for Roman law firms and associating with top-ranking Vatican cardinals”.

Professor Bordignon said that Five Star’s election manifesto offered a “quite detailed” section on universities and research. “It involved…an increase of public investments in higher education and a radical revision of recruitment procedures for professors”, although the subsequent governing “contract” between Five Star and League “seems to offer only general statements on this subject”, he added.

Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded Five Star, has long showed an interest in “data, theories, scientific innovations” in his TV shows, said Professor Bordignon. But “Five Star Science”, he added, “seldom coincides with ‘mainstream’ or ‘official’ science”.

Five Star has often been accused of supporting conspiracy theories, said Professor Bordignon, “for example on the issue of vaccines”.

Both Five Star and League have pledged to repeal a law making vaccinations against a range of diseases including measles mandatory for children under 16.

The union of the two parties has previously been called a potential “antiscience government”.

Nevertheless, Professor Ignazi said that Five Star has significant support among students and younger academics, with many drawn away from the centre-left Democratic Party at the last election. But the alliance with the right-wing League “would disappoint these people”, he added.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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