Rome mayoral race heads to tense June runoff between center-left, center-right coalition partners

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If you’re were the United States and you’re like me, you spent your Memorial Day partying like it was the next Cinco de Cuatro.Italy Flag Icon

But in Italy, citizens were once again headed to the polls in local elections, and the most significant among the races is the mayoral race in Rome, Italy’s capital, and the ‘eternal city’ that so many centuries ago served as the center of the vast empire that stretched from Central Asia to Great Britain.

Today, while the scope of SPQR is more limited, it’s nonetheless the top municipal prize in the country.  Moreover, in the fractured world of Italian politics, it’s become an even more significant prize following February’s inconclusive national elections, and the weekend’s result will lead to more political tension over the next fortnight as the top two candidates face off in a June 9-10 runoff.

With a fragile ‘grand coalition’ government between the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) and former prime minister Mario Monti’s Scelta Civica (SC, Civic Change), the PD’s Ignazio Marino (pictured above) and the PdL incumbent, Gianni Alemanno, will spend the next 14 days in a direct contest between the two dominant parties of Italy’s government.

While the mayoral race has been viewed as a test of Berlusconi’s enduring popularity, the campaign has focused more on local issues and the personalities of the two major candidates, Marino and Alemanno.  The more significant effect is that while prime minister Enrico Letta looks to his second month as Italy’s premier, and the coalition government attempts to craft a new election law, its two largest parties will be fighting against each other in a high-profile election for the next two weeks.  It’s hardly a recipe for good governance in a country with little recent experience of consensus-driven ‘grand coalitions,’ like in The Netherlands or Germany.

In early results, Marino had won around 42.60% of the vote, with Alemanno trailing at 30.27% support.  Marcello De Vito, the candidate of the opposition Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), was far behind in third place after a disappointing result for the protest movement in many of the weekend’s local elections.

Marino is somewhat of a rising star within the Democratic Party — a former organ transplant surgeon, Marino came to politics in 2006, winning election as an Italian senator.  Since then, Marino has become one of his party’s chief voices on national health care.

With Marino just 7.4% short of outright victory last weekend, Alemanno seems unlikely to emerge from the runoff victorious, though he’s certain to spend the next two weeks fighting a vicious campaign for reelection.  Alemanno, with ties to Italy’s far right, was always somewhat out of step with Rome’s centrist electorate after two two-term stints by moderate leftists, Francesco Rutelli and Walter Veltroni.

Alemanno won a narrow 2008 election victory against Rutelli by emphasizing law-and-order issues, and his victory was somewhat marred by the support of supporters who chanted ‘Duce! Duce!‘ upon his victory five years ago, highlighting his ties to the neo-fascist right.  Since taking office, he passed an ordinance banning prostitution on the streets and has emphasized deporting illegal immigrants who commit crimes, while receiving criticism for segregating Roma minorities in camps far beyond the city’s center.  He’s also faced the slings and arrows that accompany any big-city mayor — less money to fund municipal services in an era of economic recession and austerity, criticism that his government didn’t respond adequately to Rome’s 2012 snowstorm and attacks that Rome’s burdened subway system is falling apart. 

Rome lies within Lazio, the third-most populous region in Italy, which itself held regional elections to determine its regional president and assembly on the same day as Italy held national elections three months ago.  In that race, the PD’s Nicola Zingaretti won an 11-point victory over former regional president, Francesco Storace.  Storace is the leader of La Destra (The Right), a stridently ‘national conservative’ party.  Although Alemanno is running under the banner of Berlusconi’s PdL and has moved toward the center in recent years, Alemanno nonetheless has former ties to Storace and the far right in Italy.

Since 1993, when Roman voters began to elect their mayor directly, it’s been a stepping-stone to national political leadership.  Rutelli led the L’Ulivo (Olive) coalition of center-left forces in the 2001 election and Veltroni, his successor, led the newly formed Democratic Party in the 2008 election — in both cases, however, they lost to Berlusconi.  Alemanno was mentioned as a potential rival to Angelino Alfano throughout 2012 as a future leader of a post-Berlusconi PdL (Berlusconi ultimately led the PdL in the February 2013 elections).

Although the broad centrosinistra (center-left) coalition led polls in advance of February’s election, they only narrowly defeated the Berlusconi-led centrodestra (center-right) coalition and Beppe Grillo’s anti-austerity Five Star Movement.  That left the centrosinistra with a governing majority in the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), Italy’s lower house, but not in the Senato (Senate), Italy’s upper house.  After spending two months struggling to form a government, the center-left imploded during the election of Italy’s new president in April when rank-and-file members first refused to support consensus candidate Franco Marini (a former Senato president who had won Berlusconi’s support) and then refused to support former European Commission president and two-time prime minister Romano Prodi.  Ultimately, Italy’s parliament backed incumbent president Giorgio Napolitano and the PD’s leader Pier Luigi Bersani resigned.

Napolitano shortly thereafter invited Letta to form a broad ‘grand coalition’ with the support of Monti, Berlusconi and other top PdL leaders, but no one expects that coalition to do much more before new elections next year — the best hope is for some labor market reforms and a new election law to prevent a hung parliament in the future.

The net result is that, in poll after poll, the centrodestra is gaining strength, the centrosinistra, stung by the extent of its perceived incompetence since February, has fallen behind to second place, and the Five Star Movement, itself stung by the extent of its refusal to participate in potential coalition with anyone, has also lost strength in third place.  If elections were held today, it seems likely that Berlusconi’s forces would win and his protégé Alfano would become prime minister — and that trend seems unlikely to change, even if Alemanno loses the Rome mayoral runoff in June.

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