Rome Five Star Movement mayor apologizes after aide’s arrest

Rome's mayor Virginia Raggi, the poster girl for Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S), suffered a potentially significant setback Friday when she was forced to apologize for trusting a senior official arrested for suspected corruption.

Rome Five Star Movement mayor apologizes after aide's arrest
Rome's city hall, Campidoglio. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The case is not linked to any council activity, but offices at the city hall were raided as part of an investigation into its head of personnel, Raffaele Marra.

Seen as having been included in Raggi's inner circle, Marra is suspected of accepting an illegal payment in an shady real estate deal unconnected to the administration.

“We probably made a mistake. Marra was already a senior official and we trusted him,” Raggi told a press conference. “I'm sorry, to the citizens of Rome, to M5S and to (party leader) Beppe Grillo,” she said, emphasizing that Marra had not been a political appointee.

Marra being given a senior post by Raggi was controversial because of his past employment by prominent right-wing figures in local politics, including former mayor Gianni Alemanno.

M5S prides itself on being scrupulously ethical and having no links to what it sees as the sleazy ways of Italian politics.

And its ability to make a success of running Rome, where Raggi won the mayor's seat in June, is seen as a key test in the run-up to nationwide elections due in the next 15 months.

Polls suggest M5S, headed by comedian Beppe Grillo, will rival the ruling Democratic Party in the battle to emerge from the polls as the biggest party.

Raggi faces a tough task in trying to turn around a city grappling with the legacy of years of corruption and mismanagement: pot-holed roads, failing refuse services and inadequate public transport.

Baffled Beppe

Supporters say she is starting to make a difference after six months. But rivals have pounced on a string of resignations and cancelled appointments as evidence that the lawyer is not up to the job.

The Rome experience has also exposed what some see as Grillo's controlling role in the party he founded only five years ago. The leader has repeatedly clashed with Raggi and had publicly described himself as “baffled” by the appointment of Marra.

The Democratic Party meanwhile suffered a setback of its own when its high-profile mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, stepped down temporarily after being informed he was under investigation in connection with his previous job as the organizer of the 2015 World Expo fair in the city.

“Although I have no idea about what I am supposed to have done, I decided to suspend myself from my post,” pending clarification, Sala said in a statement.

According to Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Sala is suspected of a misdemeanor consisting of retrospectively dating a file in the tender process for the Expo's preparation work. The paper said the action had had no bearing on the outcome of the tender concerned.

By Angus MacKinnon

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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.