Can Europe Make It?

What has happened to Virginia Raggi?

The Five Star Movement mayor of Rome has undergone non-stop media attacks since being elected last year.

Michele Monni
14 March 2017
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Virginia Raggi has been mayor of Rome since June 2016. PAimages/Andrea Ronchini/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire. All rights reserved.

What happened to Virginia Raggi? Eight months after a stunning victory that propelled her into office as the first female mayor of Rome, the cabinet of the 38 year-old lawyer and representative of the Five-Star Movement (M5S) has been engulfed in controversies that have, her detractors argue, seriously undermined the credibility of her and the movement.

According to its critics, the Five Star Movement's biggest problem today is that it seems to lack the political and administrative experience to govern important cities, let alone Italy as a whole. But the highly disenfranchised Italian electorate does not seem to be bothered.

Many claim that because of all the political scandals and corruption cases involving traditional party members, they’re willing to bet on the highly inexperienced M5S politicians, a party perceived as populist, inexpert and naïve, but less corrupt and much more in touch with people’s needs and daily problems.

Even though the scandals surrounding Rome’s city council did not involve any affiliates of the M5S, senior cabinet members in Raggi’s administration have resigned due to disagreements with the mayor. Her top aides have been investigated by the judiciary, and the mayor herself is under investigation for abuse of office - a minor and quite common administrative charge among municipality officials across Italy.

The first real blow to Raggi’s administration dates back to December 2016, when Raffaele Marra, head of personnel of the City Council, was arrested for corruption. Marra is still in jail. Earlier, in September, Raggi had to completely reshuffle her cabinet when five leading members of the city government resigned complaining about the lack of experience of the mayor and the poor cohesiveness of the City Council.

Prior to Raggi’s election, the Rome City Council wasn’t exactly thriving. For the last 20 years Rome’s administration has been evenly split between the Left and the Right. These administrations seemed more involved in offering jobs to political supporters and family members - in addition to providing hefty tenders to local and very powerful entrepreneurs who supported their campaigns – than real governance. When Virginia Raggi took office, the city’s debt stood at a staggering 20 billion euros. Rome’s infrastructure is now more similar to that of a developing country rather the third largest economy in the EU.

Corruption in the Eternal City has been thriving for quite a while, even before Raggi’s arrival. A 2015 police investigation called “Mafia Capitale” - made public by investigative journalist magazine L’ Espresso - unveiled a scandal involving the government of the city of Rome in which alleged crime syndicates misappropriated money intended for city services.

The enquiry exposed a network of corrupt relationships between politicians and criminals in the Italian capital. This criminal organization took advantage of the recent inflow of immigrants from eastern Europe, as well as refugees from Africa and the Middle East, with one of the group's associates boasting that they “made more money from managing refugees and migrants than they did from drug trafficking”.

The criminal cartel also exploited its connections to secure lucrative public contracts, before accepting payments for substandard or, sometimes, non-existent services. The investigation forced the then right wing major Gianni Alemanno to quit, and nearly wiped out the city branch of the then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party with dozens of arrests and convictions. 

Even though the controversies regarding Raggi’s administration are minor and have not in any way reached the level of her predecessors, mainstream media and the largest national newspapers have been constantly attacking the mayor since her landslide victory eight months ago.

The quotidian attacks reached their peak last September, after the decision of Ms Raggi to withdraw the city from the 2024 Olympic bid. Raggi stated that it would have been “irresponsible” to pursue the bid given that the city was barely able to collect its own trash, stressing the debts that previous Olympic host cities have sustained and the unfinished infrastructure already dotting Rome from previous sporting bids.

Raggi told the press that the bid was unsustainable for a city struggling to emerge from years of corruption and poor public services, adding that she was merely being consistent with her campaign positions. The reaction of the press and mainstream TV was vicious, with particularly harsh criticism from the most important daily in the city, Il Messaggero.

The owner of the paper, Caltagirone Group, which has strong ties with the political establishment at both a local and a national level, is one of the biggest developers in Italy – it’s also the country’s fourth largest publishing company - and would have benefited enormously from the tenders necessary for new sport facilities in Rome.

As an example of this media frenzy over the M5S mayor, it is sufficient to mention the recent brutal front-page on Libero, a right wing conservative newspaper, that referred to Ms Raggi as a “hot potato” — a pun pointing, in Italian slang, to female genitalia.  The sexist violence against Ms Raggi was unanimously condemned but similar attacks have only continued, including alleged sexual relationships between the major and members of her cabinet. 

Despite the mainstream media attacks and the, until now, poor results of Raggi’s administration, the mayor continues to enjoy a staggering approval rating in the city, especially amongst the more disadvantaged people of Rome. Recent polls show that her popularity remained strong in working-class areas of the city, pivotal areas for her victory against the candidate of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), who only managed to gain endorsements from upper-class areas in the posh historical centre.

Beppe Grillo – the loudmouthed comedian-activist, founder and guarantor of the M5S- praised Raggi’s successes, mentioning the €430m increase in funding for the decrepit public transport system over the next three years and a 1.6 per cent reduction in the detested garbage tariff.

He accused the media of not covering the efforts of Raggi’s administration and of giving disproportional space to rumours and gossip surrounding the City Council. The recent approval of a radically-reduced plan to build an environmentally friendly 52,000-seater stadium for Italian Serie A football team AS Roma, has been seen as a sign of good managerial skills on the part of Raggi, according to president Jim Pallotta – the Italian-American hedge fund manager who acquired the team in 2011. 

But the almost blatant bias of the press – except for a few independent publications – against Virginia Raggi specifically and M5S as a whole, is bringing about opposite effects to those intended by their detractors.

As many analysts have pointed out, the more the press attacks the M5S, the more the the lack of trust in mainstream media increases, pushing the already disenchanted Italian electorate to abandon traditional parties. As polls have consistently showed, Grillo’s anti-establishment movement would be the first choice for the majority of Italians in coming elections. 

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