Virginia Raggi was elected on Sunday as Rome’s first female mayor, exit polls showed, in an electoral triumph for the populist Five Star Movement that represents a major setback for Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Exit polls gave Raggi around two thirds of the vote in a run-off contest with Roberto Giachetti of Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
The 37-year-old lawyer and local councillor, a complete unknown only a few months ago, had been widely expected to claim the keys to City Hall.
But the margin of her victory exceeded expectations with the exit polls pointing to her taking between 62 and 68 percent of the vote.
Polls suggested the PD had not suffered such big reverses elsewhere but the centre-left was in danger of losing control of the major northern cities Milan and Turin while holding on to Bologna and Naples.
Victory in Rome is a major coup for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (MS5) founded by comedian Beppe Grillo only seven years ago.
The party has since established itself as the major opposition force in Italian politics and analysts say victory in Rome will give it a platform to mount a challenge to Renzi in national elections due in 2018.
Raggi successfully tapped into widespread anger among voters over the state of the capital’s public transport and other services, widely seen as having been undermined by years of sleaze in the municipal administration.
Time for change
“It’s time to change Rome,” was the battlecry of her campaign, along with Five Star’s constant refrain of “honesty”.
Her cause in the capital was helped by the ousting of her predecessor, the PD’s Ignazio Marino, over an expenses issue and a much bigger scandal over organised crime’s infiltration of the city administration.
In what is known as the “Mafia Capitale” case, dozens of local businessmen, officials and politicians are currently on trial for their involvement in a criminal network that ripped off the city to the tune of tens -- if not hundreds -- of millions of euros.
Scams abounded for years, from stealing the funds allocated to transport ethnic Roma children to school to paving the city’s streets with wafer-thin surfaces, according to prosecutors.
Raggi has vowed to make such abuses impossible with far-reaching reforms of the way the local administration is run, as well as getting public services back on track.
But many analysts are sceptical about her ability to make a difference given her lack of experience and the city’s huge structural problems, which include a debt mountain of over 13 billion euros ($14.7 billion).
Olympics not a priority
Raggi was a late entrant to politics, telling AFP recently that she had been inspired by the birth of her son Matteo to try and make her home city a better place for him to grow up in.
One area in which she is likely to make an immediate impact is on the credibility of Rome’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics.
She said during the campaign that she did not consider winning the Games as essential, arguing that the city has bigger problems it needs to address first.
“No Roman has asked me whether I back the Olympics,” she said, in comments that will delight rival cities Paris, Los Angeles and Budapest. “They talk to me about transport, they talk to me about schools. (The Olympics) are not a priority, they’re really not a priority.”