After Rome win, pressure mounts on populists to prove fit to govern

Virginia Raggi, landslide winner of Rome's mayoral elections, is set to occupy the highest office ever held by a member of Italy's main opposition party: the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

The 37-year-old lawyer has her work cut out for her, inheriting a bankrupt, congested and corrupt metropolis likely to test her mettle and her inexperienced party's claims to be ready to take over the running of the entire country.

Mario Sechi, a conservative commentator, says the M5S now have a "golden opportunity" to burnish their credentials and present themselves as an attractive alternative to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

"If, with a bit of effort and a bit of luck - which is always key in politics - they manage to clear up some rubbish and make a few buses run on time, it would be miracle for Rome," Sechi told dpa.

But the commentator added he had "zero expectations" about such a prospect.

If the M5S governs well in Rome, "or at least give[s] that impression," its top politician Luigi Di Maio could beat Renzi at the next general elections, Roberto D'Alimonte, a leading political scientist, said at the foreign press association in Rome.

The consensus view among commentators has consistently been that winning office in Rome could prove to be a poisoned chalice for the M5S, given the extent and the entrenched nature of the Eternal City's problems.

Such perceptions were reinforced in February by M5S lawmaker Paola Taverna, who suggested that "there may be a plot to let the Five Star Movement win in Rome," in order to then deprive the party of central government funding and leave it to "make a poor showing."

Raggi inherits a city with debts of more than 14 billion euros (16 billion dollars), near-bankrupt transport and rubbish collection services, and an army of more than 50,000 municipal workers who are at best unproductive, and at worst play truant or accept bribes.

Running a campaign that promised a "gentle revolution" and ruffled very few feathers, the mayor-elect has offered little policy specifics, sticking to generic pledges to root out corruption and "reorganize" public services with no culls in the workforce.

In a telling example of her cautious approach, Raggi last week refused to criticize a strike held simultaneously with Italy's opening match in the Euro 2016 football tournament.

The protest, backed by a union who had endorsed her, was "a coincidence," Raggi said.

As a party that soaks up dissent from the left and right of the political spectrum, the M5S has sent mixed messages on several key issues: For D'Alimonte, the movement is more interested in dislodging Renzi and the PD than in ideological consistency.

At the national level, it has fudged its positions on gay rights and migration. In Rome, Raggi has come out against a bid to host the 2024 Olympics before making a partial U-turn, and she has also been unclear on whether the city should default or simply renegotiate its debts.

Once installed in the mayor's office at Capitoline Hill with spectacular views over the ruins of the Roman Forum, Raggi will no longer be able to evade hard choices; in November, even M5S leader Beppe Grillo saw mass layoffs and strikes in Rome's near future.

According to Roma fa Schifo (Rome sucks), an influential civic campaign blog, Raggi should immediately shed her consensual approach and declare all-out-war against unions, taxi drivers, corporations and vested interests holding back Rome.

Raggi can prolong "a honeymoon with the city avoiding hard truths," to protect her party's popularity, "or start hitting hard [...] and go back on speaking terms [with the city] in three year's time, once it is back on track," the blog wrote.

Otherwise, the M5S could continue focusing on fighting Renzi: Its next objective is blocking government-sponsored constitutional reforms in an October referendum. This would force the premier's resignation but also leave Italy's institutions in a limbo.

D'Alimonte, who backs the reform, called this Renzi-exit or "Rexit" scenario "chaotic:" With unreformed and conflicting electoral laws for the upper and lower chambers of parliament, the country would become de-facto ungovernable.

"This would be bad news not only for Italy, but also for Europe, because you do not want chaos in a country whose public debt is worth more than 130 per cent of its gross domestic product," the professor from Rome's LUISS university warned.

Last update: Mon, 20/06/2016 - 16:40

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