The once obscure law professor has been at the helm of two governments of different political persuasions since 2018, the latter dominated by a deadly pandemic and a record recession.
“I think he has rather uncommon qualities … otherwise he would not have got to where he is, and above all stayed there, despite all odds,” remarked political journalist Francesco Bei.
The 56-year-old Conte is this week trying to keep his job following the exit from the ruling coalition of ex-premier Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva party.
Renzi had for weeks lambasted Conte for his handling of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 82,000 lives in Italy and devastated the economy.
But Conte has enjoyed approval ratings topping 60 percent since the pandemic began, while his approach of locking down Italy — after some hesitations — was followed by governments across Europe.
Conte was dubbed “Mr Nobody” when he was appointed in 2018 to take over a fractious coalition comprising the initially anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and Matteo Salvini‘s far-right League.
He introduced himself as “the people’s advocate”, and said he was happy to lead a populist government if that meant listening to people’s needs and working “to remove old privileges and entrenched powers.”
When he took that message to the European Parliament, liberal lawmaker and former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt lampooned him as a “puppet” of his deputy premiers: Salvini and M5S leader Luigi Di Maio.
But he turned the tables on Salvini when, buoyed by a bumper crop of European election results, the League leader quit the government in August 2019 in a bid to force new polls.
Conte himself resigned, lashing out at Salvini for pursuing his own interests, and went on to preside over an unlikely coalition between M5S and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), two former sworn enemies.
In the first few terrifying months of the pandemic, the seemingly unflappable, dapper Conte appeared to many Italians as a safe pair of hands.
“Let’s keep our distance today, so that we may be able to hug each other with more warmth tomorrow,” he said at the start of a national lockdown in March.
With Italy the first European Union country to be hit badly, Conte leveraged the crisis to plead for more solidarity and eventually secured the largest slice of a 750-billion-euro ($906 billion) EU recovery fund — worth around 200-billion-euros ($196 billion).
Conte’s approval ratings surged to 65 percent, according to an Ipsos survey for Corriere della Sera newspaper, and in January were still in the mid-50s — despite some signs of popular impatience with him.
When news organisation Politico named Conte its “Doer Number 1” of 2020, it sparked mockery and anger on social media.
Renzi has accused the premier and M5S of squandering the windfall of the EU funds and failing to have the vision to spend it.
Critics also claim Conte hesitates over key decisions and failed to use the lull in infection rates last summer to prepare for a second wave that has proved deadlier than the first.
In Bergamo, one of the Italian cities worst-hit by the virus, relatives of victims are suing Conte and other key government figures, citing a litany of official failures in the early stages of the epidemic.
Born in 1964 in the tiny village of Volturara Appula in the southern region of Puglia, Conte was a law lecturer at the University of Florence.
A devout Catholic and former leftist turned M5S supporter, he also taught at Rome’s Luiss University — although he has been accused of inflating parts of his CV.
Conte is reportedly “very religious” and devoted to mystic Catholic saint Padre Pio, who was famous for exhibiting “stigmata” — body marks supposedly matching the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ.
Of his own politics, he once said: “I used to vote left. Today, I think that the ideologies of the 20th century are no longer adequate.”