Rome is on track to get its first ever female mayor

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Virginia Raggi. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
08:59 CEST+02:00
"Bread and circuses" was the formula that ancient Rome's rulers hoped would keep the restless natives happy. Two millennia later, residents of the Eternal City just want their buses to turn up on time, holes in the roads filled and garbage collected and dealt with safely.

Virginia Raggi says that is why she put her legal career on hold in a bid to become the Italian capital's first female mayor, as the candidate of the populist Five Star movement.

The 37-year-old lawyer has been feted by local media; she is leading opinion polls ahead of Sunday's first round of voting and looks a sure-fire bet to make it into the June 19 run-off. Her campaign made the most of simmering discontent in the city, over everything from endemic double-parking to chronic levels of absenteeism from public offices.

"Rome has to first and foremost get back to being a normal city," Raggi told AFP in an interview.

"For ordinary Romans it is not that at the moment, it is an extremely difficult place to live and that is not right for the capital of Italy."

Rome has been run since late last year by an official appointed after Ignazio Marino quit as mayor, having been disowned by party allies in the centre-left government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi over an expenses scandal.

'Contracts on merit'

The city is also still dealing with the fallout from Mafia Capitale, a scandal that erupted in late 2014 when dozens of businessmen, politicians and officials were arrested on suspicion of having conspired for years to siphon off city funds through rigged tenders and other scams.

One of the accused now on trial was caught on a wiretap boasting that stealing cash intended to help asylum-seekers was more lucrative than dealing drugs.

Against that backdrop, being mayor looks like a job nobody would want. But Raggi, a Roman born and bred, is chomping at the bit.

"I've never lacked determination," she said, explaining how having a son prompted her to enter politics in her early 30s. "I didn't want him growing up in this city the way it is now."

She adds: "How do we fight this system (the infiltration of organized crime)? You have to apply the law, follow what the law says, put systems in place, organize tenders, award contracts on merit. "Do that, and you destroy the links that have poisoned the administrative and political life of this city."

With breezy confidence, she says she can end the gridlock that is a regular feature of city life. But there is nothing really new in a manifesto that Marino has slammed as painfully devoid of detail.

Lightly organized chaos

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Raggi says she will give priority to public transport, make traffic lights smarter and expand priority lanes for buses.

She also wants to relaunch a public bicycle scheme of the kind that has proved successful in London and Paris, optimistically predicting that, this time, the bikes will not all be vandalzed. She bats away a suggestion that Rome is as it is because Romans essentially prefer their own version of lightly organized chaos.

"We have made a personal commitment (to changing the city) and I think there are a lot of our fellow citizens who are also now ready to do the same," she says.

Raggi believes voters are ready to place their trust in a party untainted by the failures of previous administrations of the left or right.

"It is time to send them all home," she says, reprising a campaign slogan designed to press the message that only a new broom can sweep Rome clean.

For her party, the stakes are high. Victory in Rome and a successful Raggi-led administration would give the movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo a strong launchpad for nationwide elections due by 2018 at the latest.

But Five Star's standing as untainted outsiders has been hit by the problems it has encountered in the small number of municipalities it already heads. The party has, in recent months, disowned three of the 16 mayors elected on its ticket.

Grillo's dominant role is also under scrutiny and Raggi raised eyebrows when she recently admitted she would step down if he asked her to.

She says giving the party oversight of policies and appointments is good practice. "Better to have two or three pairs of eyes than one," she says. "But I will be completely autonomous."

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