Italians have begun voting to choose mayors for the country’s largest cities in elections that will test the popularity of the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and could produce a big breakthrough for the anti-establishment .
Five Star’s Virginia Raggi, a 37-year-old lawyer, hopes to become Rome’s first woman mayor and was ahead in opinion polls before their publication stopped 15 days before the vote on Sunday, as required by Italian law.
Only in Turin is the candidate of Renzi’s Democratic party, incumbent mayor Piero Fassino, a clear favourite. Renzi has said the elections would have no repercussions for his left-right coalition government.
About 13 million people, or a quarter of the adult population, are eligible to vote for mayors of about 1,300 towns and cities, though political attention is focused firmly on the biggest: Rome, Milan, Naples and Turin.
Voting opened at 7am and will close at 11pm, when the results of exit polls will be announced for the main cities. Initial projections based on the actual vote count will be issued after about an hour, and then at regular intervals. If, as polls suggest, no candidate wins more than 50% of the initial city votes, runoffs between those who come first and second will be held on 19 June.
As if to demonstrate his insouciance, the 41-year-old prime minister visited the training camp of the Italian football squad, 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,” Renzi said recently.
Rome has been without an elected leader since last October, when Ignazio Marino, a member of Renzi’s party, was forced to quit over an expenses scandal.
That, and a much bigger, unrelated scandal over organised crime’s infiltration of Rome’s City Hall have bolstered Raggi. She went into Sunday’s vote with polls indicating she could secure around 30% of first-round votes, with the Democratic party’s Roberto Giachetti trailing on around 24%.
Rome offers an opportunity for Five Star to capitalise on anger towards the main parties on the left and right which have been embroiled in corruption scandals. It promises to introduce universal income support for the poor and to hold a referendum on whether should remain in the eurozone. But its chief asset remains its image as the only party that is serious about taking on corruption and privilege.
Losing Rome in the second round vote in two weeks 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.
But Milan is probably the key contest for Renzi. His chosen candidate Giuseppe Sala, the former head of Milan Expo 2015, was expected to comfortably win but now looks seriously threatened by a moderate centre-right rival.
Naples is widely expected to be held by the leftwing incumbent, Luigi de Magistris, an independent former prosecutor who has declared Naples a “Renzi-free zone”.