As Rome Crumbles, so Does Faith in Its First Female Mayor

ROME, Italy (CN) — Potholes devouring vehicles, trash piling up on streets, aging public buses catching on fire, graft-prone politicians running government. Don’t call Rome the city of la dolce vita.

Rome (Davide Cattini photo via Pixabay)

Romans are not happy with the state of their city and they’ve lost faith in Virginia Raggi, the city’s first female mayor, who came into office in 2016 pledging to turn the troubled Italian capital around.

When elected, Raggi was the new face of Italy — and a sign of a big change in Italian politics. She was just 37 years old — the youngest mayor Rome has ever had — and a rising star of Italy’s growing political force: The anti-establishment and anti-corruption digital party known as the 5-Star Movement. But the political honeymoon is over — and has been for a while.

Raggi came into office with 67% of the vote, but a recent opinion poll conducted for Il Messaggero, Rome’s major newspaper, found 73% of the 800 Romans surveyed unhappy with Raggi.

“Rome is disgusting,” complained Dario Pallotta, a 65-year-old tobacco shop owner, on a recent summer evening. “She hasn’t made anything better. And she lost the Olympics for us.”

After taking office, Raggi withdrew Rome’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, saying it would cost too much money for a city that was “unlivable” and unable to pick up its own trash.

It was a controversial decision because some saw hosting the Olympics as a chance to lure investment into a city in need of an uplift and because the city’s bid called for renovating and reusing structures left over from Rome’s 1960 Olympic Games.

Pallotta cast his eyes over the square where he sat near the Milvian Bridge that crosses the Tiber River and he frowned. He had little to say that was upbeat about Rome under Raggi.

Dario Pallotta, right, sits with a friend outside a tobacco store he runs in Rome. Pallotta, like many other Romans, is unhappy with the state of his city and disappointed with Virginia Raggi, the city’s first female mayor. (Cain Burdeau photo/CNS)

“There might be more potholes” than when she took office, he said. “The trash has gotten worse. For now nothing is better. The one good thing she did was get rid of Marino.”

A friend sitting with Pallotta nodded in agreement. Raggi replaced former center-left Mayor Ignazio Marino, who was brought down by an expenses scandal. Marino was preceded in office by Gianni Alemanno, a center-right politician who was at the center of a wide-ranging corruption scandal, known as the Mafia Capitale case, involving criminal groups and city government.

The story of corrupt politicians is all too familiar to Romans.

“They eat all the money,” Pallotta said of politicians, making a hand gesture of stuffing his mouth. He added cynically: “I would do the same if I was in office.”

Raggi and her 5-Star Movement promised to do better —most importantly, they promised to break the cycle of corruption and self-serving politicians that has plagued Italian politics.

“It’s in this scenario that the 5-Star Movement — and Virginia Raggi in Rome — proposed a different view of politics and politicians,” said Federica Formato, a lecturer at the University of Brighton in England who studies women in Italian politics. “They maintained that they were different from the (ruling) elite, having the citizens’ interests at heart,” Formato said in an email to Courthouse News

Raggi’s election was a big moment for the 5-Star Movement, proving that it could win high office.

“Romans really believed that Virginia Raggi could break this cycle and help the city to regain dignity and pride,” Formato said.

But it didn’t take long for Raggi too to become wrapped in scandal. Shortly after taking office, a member of her inner circle, Raffaele Marra, was arrested on corruption charges. Other scandals followed and Raggi was accused by prosecutors of lying about a city hall appointment. She was acquitted in November 2018 on that charge.

James Newell, an expert on Italian politics, said the allegations against Raggi and her administration “had inevitable political costs.”

“She has tended to be regarded by her party as more of a liability than an asset,” Newell said in an email. “The 5-Star Movement talks little about Rome, wisely seeking to avoid attracting attention to what is going on.”

In Rome, people have good reasons to be upset: The city is encumbered by billions of euros in debts from waste and corruption, and saddled with crumbling services and infrastructure.

Garbage piles up. In some places residents complain it is rarely collected, as the city struggles to find places to put all its trash. Meanwhile, the city’s efforts to introduce recycling are lagging. Rat infestations are common. The uncollected trash attracts wild hogs and sea gulls.

It’s not just the trash. Numerous public buses have caught on fire — the latest bus going up in flames Wednesday. Officials blame the fires on poor maintenance and an aging fleet.

Then there are the infamous potholes that are much more than a hole in the road. The city’s potholes are so big they have swallowed cars, caused herniated discs and fatalities.

Raggi has made fixing the city’s potholes a priority and her administration has patched up many roads.

One such road is Viale del Caravaggio. “On this street you needed a Hummer to get by because there were so many humps and potholes,” said Andrea Vaccarotti, a real estate agent whose office windows look onto the boulevard.

An evening scene in Rome, where dissatisfaction with the state of the city is high. Romans struggle with bad roads and potholes, poor services, trash piling up and corrupt politicians. They also have become disillusioned with Virginia Raggi, the city’s first female mayor. (Cain Burdeau photo/CNS)

Besides fixing the potholes on his road, Vaccarotti praised Raggi for cleaning up the city’s white-collar crime and corruption.

“I voted for people who robbed,” he said of his past votes for officials who turned out to be corrupt. “I will never vote for any party that has someone who is under investigation or who was convicted.

“People want change,” he said. “People aren’t voting for the old parties anymore.”

But Vaccarotti appears to be among a minority who see the 5-Star Movement and Raggi as having done much to change Rome, and more generally, Italy. In 2018, the 5-Stars won the most votes in national elections and since then have governed Italy with junior partners. But their popularity has plummeted.

Gianluca De Vitis, a 43-year-old Roman lawyer, is among those unimpressed with Raggi and the 5-Stars.

“Useless and incompetent,” he said of Raggi’s administration. “To run a city like Rome you need ability.”

He said the 5-Star Movement has proven that it just doesn’t have the skills and expertise needed to govern.

Newell, the Italian political expert, said the 5-Star Movement, which calls itself a solutions-driven force that doesn’t adhere to left-wing or right-wing paradigms, has a “tendency to create expectations difficult to meet.”

“The suggestion that ‘left and right no longer exist, only solutions,’ inevitably implied that the Movement was uniquely qualified to provide the efficient governance that had eluded all the ‘mainstream’ parties with which it sought to contrast itself,” Newell said.

But once in office, he said, the 5-Star Movement found itself “having to adapt itself to the system as the price of being able to participate effectively at all.”

He said that Raggi’s administration in Rome “shows that ‘outsider’ parties like the 5-Star Movement are at least as likely to be changed by, as to change, the system.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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