AFP – The anti-establishment Five Star party’s Virginia Raggi easily took the lead in the first round of the Rome mayoral race Sunday, exit polls showed, dealing a setback to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s ruling party.
Raggi, a 37-year-old lawyer whose campaign tapped into simmering discontent over a string of corruption scandals in the Italian capital, won between 33 and 38 percent of the vote, according to exit polls by public broadcaster RAI and La7 television.
She was trailed by Roberto Giachetti of Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD), who secured 20 to 26 percent of the vote.
A second round run-off is to take place on June 19.
Rome was considered the main prize in a battle for municipal seats across the country Sunday, in local polls widely seen as a test for Renzi.
Eyes were also trained on the mayoral election in Milan, where centre-left candidate Giuseppe Sala took the lead with 38 to 42 percent, in line with pre-poll expectations, according to La7.
He was closely followed by the centre-right’s Stefano Parisi.
Overall, more than 13 million people nationwide were asked to cast their ballots to choose members of 1,300 municipal councils in a two-round ballot.
– First female mayor? –
The Italian capital has been without an elected leader since last October, when Ignazio Marino, a member of PD, was forced to quit over an expenses scandal.
That episode and a much bigger, unrelated scandal over organised crime’s infiltration of City Hall have bolstered Raggi’s bid to become the first female mayor of the Eternal City.
Even if Raggi doesn’t win, her strong showing is likely to boost the populist Five Star movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, as it seeks to cement its status as a mainstream party.
They will be hoping that success in Rome will give them the platform they need to transform themselves into Italy’s principal opposition in the run up to national elections due by June 2018 at the latest.
Losing control of Rome would not augur well for Renzi four months before a referendum on constitutional reforms designed to end decades of gridlock in parliament.
Renzi has vowed to resign if voters reject the reforms.
Perhaps concerned about the impact of losing both Rome and Milan for the momentum of his reform programme, Renzi has played down the significance of the local elections.
As if to demonstrate his insouciance, the 41-year-old visited the training camp of the Italian football squad on Sunday to wish them luck in the Euro 2016 championships starting in France next week.
“The municipals are about mayors, the people whose job it is to repair the streets, not the government of the country,” he said ahead of the vote.