Romans choose from a crowded field to rule a chaotic city

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ROME – In the five years since Virginia Raggi became mayor, Rome has had some problems. Garbage has piled up on the sidewalks, attracting flocks of seagulls and crows. A pothole epidemic has riddled the city streets. Public buses that are already unreliable have started to burn. And the town’s Christmas tree looked so sad that the Romans called it “Mangy”.

Now, in the days leading up to the mayoral elections in Rome on Sunday, the city’s newspapers, frustrated residents and a long list of candidates vying to succeed Ms. Raggi have attacked her over what they say they are it shows how uncivilized it has become: pillaging packs of wild boars. Their critics call them “Raggi’s Boars” and exchange viral videos of pigs in Roman dumpsters.

“If we want to build a zoo, we are on the right track,” said Carlo Calenda, one of the candidates who will compete against Ms. Raggi, on Italian television.

Ms. Raggi’s perceived weakness has drawn 21 opponents from across the political spectrum. The biggest challengers to her re-election include a conservative lawyer and two center-left politicians with national profiles. But marginal figures, including “Dr. Seduction ”and a gladiator reenactor who goes by the name of“ Nero ”have also seized the opportunity to replace Ms. Raggi, who does poorly in the polls.

Italian local elections, especially in the big cities, are often viewed as a beacon for the general national sentiment. Ms. Raggi’s landslide victory in 2016 as a candidate for the anti-establishment Five Star movement anticipated Five Star’s success in the 2018 national election.

But Five Star’s popularity has plummeted, and Italy is enjoying a rare period of political stability under Prime Minister Mario Draghi, an independent who this time ripped Rome’s election of such far-reaching consequences. Winning here is still considered a measure of the strength of the national parties, but this time around, community issues – traffic, litter, and unwanted wildlife – have come to the fore.

A candidate is unlikely to win a majority of the vote if the polling stations close on Monday, leading to another round of voting and potentially weeks of horse trading that could very well make Ms. Raggi a power broker.

But she doesn’t admit anything and has fought vigorously in the last few days. She blames the larger Lazio region, which includes Rome and is led by the center-left Democratic Party, responsible for all the trash and invasive species. After serving in the City Council of Rome and having agreed, according to the original rules of your party, that she would never hold more than two terms in public office, Ms. Raggi now argues that five full years in the city are not enough to change Rome.

A full decade, she says, will do the trick.

Romans don’t seem so sure. The latest polls speak for Enrico Michetti, a lawyer and last-minute candidate supported by multiple center-right parties and far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, who is Roman and has significant base. Mr. Michetti has drawn attention to himself for his talent for evading the news media (Italian reporters call him “Houdini”) and speaks mainly about ancient Rome when asked about modern problems.

“When Caesar died, it looked like it was all over,” Michetti said in July at a rare occurrence in an election debate when asked about his idea for the future of Rome. “But then Caesar Octavian Augustus put the institutions at the center.”

In a telephone interview on Friday, Mr Michetti defended his speech on Rome’s glory days, which he described as a time of civic governance. “Rome would never have built the pyramids; too much effort in the interests of one person, ”he said. “Instead, Rome built bridges, roads, aqueducts, theaters – everything to serve the collective well-being.”

Behind Mr Michetti stands Roberto Gualtieri, the candidate of the center-left Democratic Party. Gualtieri was Italy’s Minister of Economy and Finance from 2019 to the beginning of this year and before that Chairman of the Economic Committee of the European Parliament. As a historian with a penchant for gray suits, he has highlighted his competence and expertise as a contrast to what critics call Ms. Raggi’s incompetence.

“Rome can experience a rebirth”, he said in a telephone interview, “after the bad administration of these years.”

Mr. Gualtieri, sometimes with an invigorating guitar, has pledged to transform Rome, where it often takes almost forever, into a “15-minute city” where residents can quickly reach any service.

But in a familiar dynamic in Italian politics, the center-left vote is split. One of Mr Gualtieri’s rivals is Mr Calenda, who was once the country’s Minister for Economic Development and is now in the European Parliament. As a former member of the Democratic Party, Mr. Calenda has broken with the party to protest an alliance he has formed with its former enemy, Five Star, which he detests.

Mr Calenda was more violent in his criticism of Mrs Raggi, calling her government “an apocalypse” and “a cosmic disaster” and taking up Rome’s reputation as an ungovernable city to argue that only a proven manager like him can get it under control.

He said he would spend the first year and a half of his tenure repairing the “equipment” of Rome’s streets and focusing on basic services like garbage collection and tree maintenance to prevent falling branches from hitting cars.

He also rejected the speculation by political insiders that he would enter into an alliance with Mr Michetti if necessary. “I’ve never heard him say anything intelligent, not even normal,” Mr. Calenda said of him.

Lorenzo de Sio, the director of the Italian Center for Electoral Studies, said the number of candidacies made the election difficult.

Many Romans have become so used to blaming Ms. Raggi’s incompetence for the hardships of the city that her name – “La Raggi”, it is said – has become an abbreviation for everything that is wrong in the city.

But many Romans were once fascinated by Ms. Raggi, the first woman to hold the office and, when she took office, was the youngest mayor of Rome at the age of 37. She campaigned for the promise to break the city’s particular interests and make them work for everyone, an appeal that worked especially in the outermost and least affluent neighborhoods of the city.

Many of these voters remain undecided and candidates like Mr Michetti and Mr Calenda, who have visited every Roman quarter, have tried to woo them. But even at this late hour, Ms. Raggi’s supporters hope that they will come home at some point.

On Friday morning, Ms. Raggi joined a small group of supporters at a neighborhood market where the mayor opened a city food bank for residents struggling to survive. It is the fourth such center to open in Rome since May 2020, a favorite project of the mayor as the number of people in need of help has increased during the pandemic.

She came with applause and made some remarks. Her supporters complained that although the mayor has opened kindergartens and gyms and improved parks in the neighborhood, “everything is talked about the wild boar”.

But when Mrs. Raggi left, another woman complained to her about how dirty her street had become. The mayor, she said, was responsible for angry taxpayers.

Ms. Raggi blamed what she called the corrupt transport and hygiene authorities for the problems. Previous administrations would have swept the dirt under the carpet, she said, “but when you lift it up, mountains of mud have appeared.”

“Brava, Virginia!” shouted a supporter.


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