ROME: Tough-minded lawyer Virginia Raggi, rising star of the populist Five Star movement (M5S), is on track to become the first female mayor of Rome.
“We are witnessing a historic moment,” the 37-year old said Sunday night, cracking a rare smile after clinching a big lead over her rivals in the first round of local elections despite being virtually unknown to the public a few months ago.
The win pits her against the center-left Democratic Party candidate in a run-off in the Italian capital on June 19, with experts predicting her triumph.
Born in Rome, the slim brunette entered politics five years ago, attracted by the M5S—founded by outspoken comedian Beppe Grillo—and its declaration of war on the establishment and traditional political parties.
The movement’s anti-corruption stance has particular resonance in Rome, where the center-left mayor was forced to resign last year over an expenses scandal months after it emerged mobsters had been milking the city’s coffers through scams.
She told Agence France-Presse it was the birth of her son Matteo that convinced her she had to do something about the dilapidated city, once the capital of an empire, now plagued by potholes and rubbish.
Elected to the city council in 2013, Raggi, a specialist in intellectual property, was quickly noticed for her eloquence and stubbornness.
Growing up in the Saint John Lateran area of Rome, close to the Colosseum and historic center, she was a studious child.
“I was a curious young girl, interested in many things, but very focused, as I am today. Determination never failed me,” she said.
M5S held its primary for mayoral candidates online, and dark-eyed Raggi was quickly picked as a front-runner from her video presentation. It wasn’t long before she began to appear on posters in the underground stations and side of buses.
The locals certainly had time to get familiar with her face as they waited on a run-down transport system plagued by delays.
It was this issue Raggi focused on, promising to undo 20 years of stagnation, corruption and administrative mismanagement.
Critics have said the challenges of running sprawling, dirty Rome will be too much for a political inexperienced team.
What is sure is that Raggi, if she wins, will at least for the honeymoon period become the star of a movement looking to shore up its identity after the decision by founder Grillo to take a step back from politics and focus on his stand-up career.
Voters appeared to have embraced the steely character of the University of Rome graduate, admiring how Raggi, narrowing her eyes in a television debate between the candidates, bore the attacks of opponents without flinching.
Only at the end of the debate did she appear to soften and appeal to voters with a simple message that hit home: “If you want nothing to change, vote for them.”
One of her biggest challenges will be convincing the city she can act independently, despite signing a contract with M5S in which she pledged to follow the party line and consult it on all major administrative decisions—and which also stipulates she would be slapped with a fat fine for breaking rules.
“Four or six eyes are better than two” in the fight to make Rome transparent, she said, but insisted: “I am fully autonomous.”