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History is made in Rome as Five Star Movement’s Virginia Raggi becomes mayor, first woman to hold job

by Manuela Perrone

The international press was obsessed with her. Even when Virginia Raggi was just the mayoral candidate for the Five Star Movement (M5S), one of the many candidates vying in the first round to win the right to take part in yesterday’s decisive face-off. Now, it will be even more obsessed with her since Raggi has indeed been elected as the new mayor of Rome, the first woman ever to hold that job in the Eternal City. An historic development that today will make the front page on newspapers and web sites all around the world.

She soundly beat Roberto Giachetti, the Democratic Party’s candidate, a “pure” politician who has spent 37 of his 55 years inside the corridors of power, first at a local and at a national level and currently as one of the Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies. Raggi won with 67.15% of the votes, leaving Giachetti down at 32.85%.

And it is a real coup for the party created by comedian Beppe Grillo, which until now has only governed a few medium-size cities like Livorno and Parma, but which could become the main rival to the Democratic Party (PD) of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in the next national elections.

Raggi, 37, a lawyer born and raised in Rome, specializes in intellectual property and new technology for the Sammarco law firm. It’s not just any old law office. Her colleagues there are known for defending former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Berlusconi’s lawyer, former Defense Minister Cesare Previti (twice found guilty of corruption and permanently banned from holding public office) and Marcello Dell’Utri, a former member of Parliament for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party found guilty of mafia association.

Once these connections emerged, they were used by Raggi’s detractors to insinuate that she works for Forza Italia and belongs to Rome’s right-wing circles. She reacted strongly.
“They are doing everything possible to discredit me, so after having attempted to link me with the Mafia City [corruption scandal], this is another falsehood. But lies have short legs. My lawyers are happy to work on something so easy and unsubstantial. But just how much do I scare you?” she asked during the campaign.

The truth is that Raggi was also close to the radical left of SEL, working on grass roots organizing and promoting fair trade groups.

But the political spark was lit in 2011 with M5S: her husband, with whom she has a 7-year-old son, is also active in the party. In 2013, she was elected to the city council with
1,525 votes.

Her candidacy in Rome was established last February, through online voting on Grillo’s blog (which is how the party selects its leaders): some 3,862 out of a possible 9,500 subscribers voted. She won 1,764 votes — or 45.5% of the total. It’s a rather limited number on which to base a run for mayor of Rome.

Raggi was able to count on the support of her party’s co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio, who died recently, and of his son David, who inherited the management of Casaleggio Associate, the Milan firm that manages Grillo’s blog and the new platform called Rousseau, the digital heart of M5S. Two other party luminaries also backed her: Chamber of Deputies members Alessandro Di Battista and Luigi Di Maio, who is eyeing the prime minister’s seat.

Her ties with Casaleggio and the heads of the party, and her announcement that if elected she would avail herself of a parallel staff to the city councillors has led political enemies to brand her as “led by others” and incapable of acting independently.

During months of electoral campaigning, Raggi made honesty and fighting corruption her main issues, along with a renewal of public services, starting with transportation. There was no lack of proposals that, according to the Financial Times, made her “vulnerable.” The British daily cited a battle with the chairman of the Italian National Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malagò, after the candidate called him a “criminal” for considering having Rome host the 2024 Olympic games, as well as some “extravagant” ideas, like incentivizing the use of cloth diapers to reduce garbage or introducing a “complementary” currency, along the lines of the Sardex experiment in Sardinia, to help small businesses that in crisis.

Only time will tell — now that she has indeed been elected Rome’s next mayor — whether she will have the strength to govern the capital. A situation that many foreign observers think could turn out to be a “poisoned chalice.”