Centre-left’s Roberto Gualtieri voted new mayor of Rome

Romans have elected a centre-left former economy minister as their next mayor, rejecting by a large margin a right-wing contender dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, near final results showed.

Roberto Gualtieri gestures during a press conference following the first results in the second round of the Rome mayoral election on October 18, 2021 in Rome.
Roberto Gualtieri gestures during a press conference following the first results in the second round of the Rome mayoral election on October 18, 2021 in Rome. Tiziana FABI / AFP

With counting complete in more than 92 percent of polling stations, Roberto Gualtieri was leading with more than 60 percent over the right-wing candidate Enrico Michetti, a lawyer and local talk radio host with no prior political experience.

“The result is clear cut. I wish good luck to Roberto Gualtieri,” the loser of the second-round run-off vote said in a concession statement.

Gualtieri, 55, is seen as a safe pair of hands.

A trained historian whose only known extravagance is a love for playing Brazilian music on the guitar, he served in government during 2019-2021, and was previously head of the European Parliament’s economic affairs committee.

His victory marked another setback for Italy’s right-wing bloc, which despite leading in national opinion polls, lost other key mayoral battles in a first round of local elections two weeks ago — namely in Milan, Naples and Bologna.

READ ALSO: Rome votes in mayoral election dominated by rubbish and wild boars

The result is another setback for Italy’s right-wing bloc, which has been leading national opinion polls for months.

It comprises Matteo Salvini’s nationalist League party, Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right Brothers of Italy (FDI) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Their parties fared relatively badly in the first round of the local elections two weeks ago, losing mayoral races in key towns such as Milan, Naples and Bologna.

Analysts do not expect the result of the two rounds of local voting to destabilise Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government, which is backed by a left-right coalition.

On Monday, the centre-left was also predicted a win in Turin, in the northwest. Both Rome and Turin were previously run by the formerly anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which suffered a rout.

Aside from the capital, more than 60 towns and cities held mayoral elections on Sunday and Monday, although there was a very low turnout.

Roberto Gualtieri at a press conference following the first results in the second round of the Rome mayoral election on October 18, 2021 in Rome.

Roberto Gualtieri at a press conference following the first results in the second round of the Rome mayoral election on October 18, 2021 in Rome. Tiziana FABI / AFP

In the Eternal City, the campaign was dominated by complaints about its state of disrepair, including a rubbish crisis so serious that overflowing dumpsters are attracting wild boars.

“Rome cannot resign itself to talking about just rubbish and potholes. Rome is a great European capital,” Gualtieri said at his closing electoral rally on Friday.

Michetti’s campaign was derailed last week when he was forced to deny accusations of anti-Semitism over an article he wrote last year that was unearthed by a left-wing newspaper.

In it, he said the Holocaust was commemorated more than other massacres because the Jews “control banks and a lobby capable of deciding the fate of the planet”.

Michetti had also previously suggested that the stiff-armed Roman salute – commonly used by fascists – should be used during the coronavirus pandemic because it was more hygienic.

READ ALSO: Mussolini’s granddaughter tops polls for Rome local election

The right-winger, 55, had no previous political experience before running for mayor. In Rome, he was known as a lawyer and a pundit on a local talk radio channel.

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ANALYSIS: Italy’s hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Italian election winner Giorgia Meloni may at first glance have much in common with ultra-conservative governments in fellow EU nations Poland and Hungary, but experts say that when it comes to real-world policy any alliance could soon run into limits.

ANALYSIS: Italy's hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Reaction to Sunday’s strong result for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was muted from pillars of EU integration like Paris and Berlin, but Warsaw and Budapest were warm in their congratulations.

“We’ve never had greater need of friends sharing a vision of and a common approach to Europe,” the Hungarian government said, while from Poland came praise for Meloni’s “great victory”.

“Hungary and Poland are more than happy with this election, first because it relieves the pressure on their own countries in the EU, and second because it paves the way for a more united front,” said Yordan Bozhilov, director of the Bulgaria-based Sofia Security Forum think-tank.

READ ALSO: Polish PM hails far-right’s ‘great victory’ in Italian elections

The Italian election follows hard on the heels of a Swedish poll that also produced a surge for the extreme right.

But with the far right in power in one of the EU’s largest countries and founding members, Hungary and Poland could be far less isolated in their battles with Brussels over rule-of-law issues.

What’s more, Rome, Budapest and Warsaw are now set for alignment on social concerns, with anti-Islam, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT positions.

“Together we will defeat the cynical and pampered Eurocrats who are destroying the European Union, breaching treaties, destroying our civilisation and advancing the LGBT agenda!” Poland’s deputy agriculture minister Janusz Kowalski tweeted in a message congratulating Meloni on Monday.

Meloni also shares her prospective allies’ vision of a Christian, white Europe made up of sovereign nations.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind election success for Italy’s far right?

“Hungary and Poland are countries that want to change the EU from within, and they don’t hide it. So far they haven’t succeeded, but there will definitely be an attempt to create a Rome-Budapest-Warsaw axis,” said Tara Varma, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But such parties’ demands have already moderated in recent years from full exit from the EU, “given the absolute cautionary tale that Brexit has been,” she added.

Instead, the axis could become “spoilers, the sand in the gears” in Brussels.

“One step forward, two steps back, they could prevent the EU making progress while continuing to benefit from joint funds,” Varma said.

– Splits over Russia –

 A front based on values could still founder when faced with today’s overriding concern of the war in Ukraine and EU relations with Russia.

While Meloni has so far matched Warsaw in declarations of support for Ukraine and for EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion of its neighbour, Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban – close to President Vladimir Putin – is

“At some point, Meloni will have to choose between Poland and Hungary,” Varma predicted.

The Brothers of Italy leader is not expected to bend her position to match those of her junior coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who are friendlier to Moscow.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

“Regarding foreign policy, as far as we know Meloni backs the sanctions against Russia and Brothers of Italy is closer to Poland’s PiS (governing party) than Hungary’s Fidesz,” said Hungarian analyst Patrik Szicherle.

Meloni has “sent the right messages on Ukraine,” said Martin Quencez of the German Marshall Fund, pointing out Italy’s critical relationship with the US as a reliable NATO ally.

Once elected prime minister, she “has every incentive to have good relations with Brussels, not to enter a pitched battle,” said Paolo Modugno, professor of Italian civilisation at Paris’ Sciences Po university.

Meloni “is very aware of the Italian public’s problems, their fear of inflation and the economic situation. What’s urgent for her is to manage the crisis, not to take ideological risks,” he added.

Analysts suggest that the incoming government’s choice of top ministers, especially in the finance and foreign ministries, will clearly signal how Meloni plans to position herself in Europe.