Rome’s first female mayor, Virginia Raggi, has a colossal task on her hands. Aside from the Pope, classical ruins and renaissance palazzos, the Italian capital is notorious for its political corruption and incompetency. In poor neighbourhoods yards from the big sites the mismanaged public infrastructure is clear to see, and during the city’s long summers rubbish piles up on streets hidden from the tourist trail.
Raggi, who was elected in June, represents the leftist Five Star Movement. She’s only 38, but she took a 67.2% majority, marking a dramatic surge in the party’s popularity. In the 2013 general election they claimed just a quarter of the popular vote. Appealing to anti-establishment sentiment on both the left and right, she’s promised to fight corruption, clean up the city streets, and boost investment in impoverished suburbs.
Part of Raggi’s attraction is her somewhat unconventional path to politics. Born and raised in Rome, she lives in the city with her son, whom she cites as her motivation for a political career. Only a councillor for three years, she says things changed when she had children and ‘couldn’t sit back any longer and just watch’. She claims she got involved in grassroots politics ‘in the spirit of mothers who want to change the world for their children’.
During Raggi’s campaign to be Mayor of Rome, ex-Prime Minister and walking anachronism Silvio Berlusconi said that the important political office should not be held by a mother. But speaking after her victory, the former Civil Lawyer said that her election ‘shows that people are ready for a new adventure’ and that she hoped gender politics could be brought to the fore. Her authenticity in the face of a hostile establishment explains unprecedented support.
This political shift is part of a wider tide of change in Europe’s political landscape. Anti-establishment sentiment, perhaps best observed in the Brexit vote, has manifested in both the left and right. Beppe Grillo, comedian and founder of the Five Star Movement, is a vocal Eurosceptic and former ally of Nigel Farage. But Raggi has made known their differences. And she’s focussed on domestic issues in Rome, like reform of recycling procedures and reclaiming millions in unpaid taxes on the Vatican’s real estate.
Her win comes as the populist Five Star Movement sits neck and neck with Italy’s ruling Democratic party. But she’s certainly not escaped controversy. Political analyst Massimo Franco says that the contradictions in her policy platform – crafted to appeal across the spectrum – are out in the open now she’s governing. Raggi’s first months as Mayor have been far from easy. Much of the controversy involves her €192,000salary. The Telegraph published an in depth look at her fashion choices, claiming she played down her earnings with modest apparel. Five departures from the Mayor’s office in September were triggered by Raggi’s dismissal of a minister who opposed her high pay. The power struggle caused right winger Georgia Meloni to accuse Raggi’s adminstration of ‘stumbling around in the dark’.
It is Virginia Raggi’s people-centred approach that marks her as distinct within Italy’s political elite. At the time of writing it could also prove to be her downfall – she cannot hope to please everyone. She also cannot hope to maintain the anti-establishment platform of her party, now that she’s running one of the biggest administrative areas of Italy.
Importantly however, her policy speaks of change in the Eternal city. She’s upping income support for the poor and cutting taxes for small businesses. She also caused a stir when she came out against Rome’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, citing the City’s huge debt as a determining factor in her decision. Most critically she’s a stalwart of leftist thinking in the upper echelons of Italian politics. In an interview in June Raggi claimed ‘I have always said that Rome will change when Romans change. We can do anything if we stand together… we have been left with city centre which is crumbling, but I am very confident we can turn the tide, get back on track and go towards a future where the citizens are once again at the centre of politics’.
Image by Livioandronico2013 via Wikipedia