20 June 2016

Virginia Raggi: the change Rome needs, or just a pretty face?


There has been little coverage of Rome’s mayoral elections in the international press, at least until this weekend, when the realisation struck that Virginia Raggi, a 37-year-old civil rights lawyer, was likely to become the first woman and the youngest person ever to become mayor of the Eternal City. As of now, with 67% of the votes Raggi appears to have smashed her opponent Roberto Giachetti.

Arguably, however, being a young woman is not the most ‘unusual’ thing about Raggi: she is also the first mayoral candidate for the MoVimento Cinque Stelle (Five Stars Movement, M5S) in Rome, a political group which, three years ago, no one would have taken seriously. The M5S was founded by comedian and activist Beppe Grillo in 2008 as a non-party political group that wanted to transcend the left-right opposition and was presented as an alternative to the corrupted and parasitic Italian political class. Considered the deep – and somewhat justified – distrust Italians have for their politicians, the M5S’s surge of popularity is not surprising, especially among the young. As of now, there are 91 M5S parliamentarian in the Camera dei Deputati (the lower chamber of Parliament), 35 in the Senato (the upper chamber), and 17 MEPs. In the 2013 General Election, the M5S earned more than 25% of the votes, officially becoming Italy’s second political party and de facto opposition to the coalition government.

Virginia Raggi is set to win in Rome for the same reasons the M5S has performed that well in the past few years. The progressive decline of the city has gone hand in hand with the failure of two administrations from both the left- and right-wing mainstream parties to deal with the rising criminality, corruption and indecorum that plunged the city in an unprecedented crisis. Amidst ongoing discoveries of political scandals within the administrations themselves, and the unveiling of a network of shady deals and rigged subcontracts (a phenomenon aptly referred to as ‘Mafia Capitale’ ), a candidate like Raggi represents a welcome change – and Raggi knows it very well. Her entire campaign, in fact, as for most M5S’s candidates around Italy, has used evocative rhetoric (see: ‘the wind is changing in Rome’ and ‘when water is about to boil it doesn’t make sense to switch off the fire’) to play over and over again with the rising discontent of Romans with the political establishment.

But beyond the inflammatory quotes, who is Virginia Raggi and what is her programme for Rome?

Roman-born and educated, Raggi discloses in her official page that her involvement with public affairs stemmed from her exasperation with cars parked on crosswalks and pavements, which made pushing her son’s pram quite a challenge. If that sounds a little too corny, her page also mentions her love for hiking, bikes and The Little Prince. Raggi began working as a lawyer in 2006, specializing in property rights, joined the M5S in 2011 and was elected local councillor in 2013. Unlike the majority of her opponents in the first round of voting two weeks ago, Raggi has never served in Parliament, and her political experience is somewhat limited. Her candidacy was made possible by a combination of factors, including the peculiar way the M5S holds its primaries – on the group’s website, where members can vote for candidates who present themselves through short videos – and her ability to distance herself, in deeds more than in words, from the more bombastic fringes of the M5S. While serving as councillor, Raggi worked primarily on education and schooling, yet that is hardly comparable to the challenges that she will face when dealing with a chaotic, diverse and deeply dysfunctional city as Rome.

Raggi’s programme is far-reaching and ambitious. Her plan for public transport includes improving bus routes across the city, implementing harsher measures for the many who avoid paying fares, and establishing safer bike paths. But the bulk of her proposition involves the reorganisation of ATAC, the scandal-rigged firm connected to Mafia Capitale that administers Rome’s transport. Also AMA, a similar organisation which deals with rubbish collection in the Capital, is in for quite a renovation, as Raggi advocates for increased recycling – as of today almost absent in Rome – and clearer timetables for collection. This is connected with Raggi’s wider commitment to the environment: other measures include the preservation of the countryside around Rome and the green areas within it. Furthermore, Raggi has proposed a large programme of social policies, including rent control and ‘right to a dwelling’ for all families, investment in local nurseries and schools, stronger action in Rome’s most disadvantaged areas and the outskirts, incentives to sports and the arts and support to SMEs. She advocates fighting micro-criminality through the improvement of street safety and the ‘overcoming’ of one of Rome’s most contentious issues: the proliferation of camps in the outskirts of the city, mostly inhabited by Roma gypsies. Having recognised the importance of tourism for the Capital, Raggi aims to transform it into a tourist-friendly, accessible and decorous city which could compete with other European capitals in a way that, so far, it has not. Arguably, however, her strongest ammunition, which shapes her political identity, is the fight against Rome’s corruption at an administrative level, by implementing transparency of the city’s financial accounts and closely monitoring the process of delegating services to contractors.

So far, so good: Raggi seems to have identified the issues that most desperately need solution, and to have proposed sensible solutions to them. Right? Wrong. To think that Raggi has devised an original, unique plan for Rome does a disservice to the other mayoral candidates. All of them recognised the need to restructure the administrative organisation of the city, with particular emphasis to transports, safety, environment and transparency. Rome’s problems in the last 15 years have been the same, and the same solutions have routinely been proposed by the left, the right and everything in between – with, clearly, quite limited success. While some of Raggi’s ideas are unquestionably good (for example, her stark opposition to Rome’s candidacy to the Olympics, a project that would further exacerbate the already soaring deficit of the city’s finances and encourage the usual dirty deals that inevitably accompany the pursuit of such enterprises in Italy) some are weak, or outright absurd. See, for example, the project for a cable car, Emirates-Air-Line-style, to allegedly solve mobility problems in the East of Rome. Some of the other candidates, moreover, had far more pragmatic policies than her. Alfio Marchini, originally running as independent and subsequently endorsed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, proposed to redesign the transport system to incentivise eco-trams and allow access to buses (shock and horror!) for ticket-holders only. (It may be hard to imagine it for Londoners, but in Rome you can hop on a bus, ticketless, and no one will question you for it.)

And yet, a candidate so young and inexperienced that Italian comedians make impressions of her as a pedantic schoolgirl has conquered more than 67% of the Roman electorate. Why? Il Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s major newspapers, muses that it would have been harder for Raggi to lose the campaign. Certainly, a fragmented and purposeless centre-right and a centre-left accused of being out of touch with the electorate haven’t constituted the fiercest opposition. Nor have the scandals of Mafia Capitale, which implicated politicians from all mainstream parties and resulted in the premature resignation of centre-left mayor Ignazio Marino – a fundamentally honest yet spineless man – helped the cause of the ‘establishment’.

Yet for Dr. Lorenzo Castellani, Research Director at the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi think-tank and Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London, there is more behind Raggi’s and the M5S’s success than the political crisis of identity and weakness of the centre-right. Eight years of economic crisis with no recovery in sight and the ossified, stifling power structures dominating Rome – and most of Italy – have contributed to the great success of a political movement that portrays itself as the new, clean force which will revolutionise those very power structure. Anti-European and anti-Euro (the M5S has liased with UKIP in the European Parliament), the M5S also inspires hope in those the crisis has hit the hardest: young professionals failed by the system and small business owners drowning in taxes.

This is not a new phenomenon, according to Castellani: anti-politics populism has played a strong role in Italian politics since the creation of the Republic, and acquired particular relevance since the corruption scandals of the 1990s. The M5S does not offer any concrete change beyond the ingenious political marketing that is merely transforming the way politics is done in Italy. Having recognised the limits of the bombastic rhetoric of founder Beppe Grillo, the M5S has in the past two years given a lot more relevance to candidates that, in Castellani’s own words, are nothing more than “a product of middle-class electoral marketing that can be sold to anyone”. And indeed, the identikit of the major public figures of the movement is always the same: moderate, clean-faced, person-next-door attitude and a programme that is so broad and vague to appease and satisfy the group’s heterogeneous electoral base. All such figures, including the new mayor of Rome, master political storytelling and cleverly exploit social media, in a way that many mainstream party figures, including Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, have tried to imitate for years.

Undoubtedly, Raggi has been able to inspire many Romans – although attendance at the voting booth was at historic lows, as many refused to choose which, between Raggi and centre-left candidate Giachetti, was ‘the less of two evils’. It is possible that she will indeed be able to do what is needed for Rome to reborn. She might also be able to redeem the M5S from its toxic legacy, and inaugurate a new age of maturity and sensible policymaking for the group. Yet, as Castellani points out, she faces serious challenges, both in Rome and within the M5S itself. Rome resists change, as previous mayor Marino knows too well: the inquiry on Mafia Capitale has revealed how deeply illegality is entrenched in the administration of the city, and how easy it is to stifle true political change. She faces, alone, all the main political forces at national and local levels, a burgeoning bureaucracy that dominates every area of social and economic life, and the various lobbies, media and criminal organisations applying pressure to her every future move. Raggi’s wiggle room is limited by the M5S itself, which has a history of expelling ‘dissidents’. Some Italian sources have recently reported a document that Raggi has allegedly signed, which binds her to stick to the group’s line, or else pay a hefty €150,000 fee..

Rome is a demanding city, and needs a strong, decisive yet flexible mayor. Whether Raggi can become the leader Rome so desperately needs depends ultimately on her ability to juggle between contrasting forces that inevitably govern the city, to learn quickly, and to accept some bitter compromises with mainstream political parties. Having a young woman mayor is a welcome change, yet Raggi’s age and gender are hardly her own merit. The next few months and years will be the true test for her competence, and for the future of the MoVimento Cinque Stelle. Romans may have decided not to switch off the fire under Raggi’s boiling water, but the time of catchy slogans is over now.

Beatrice Faleri is Senior Editor of Perspectives at King’s College London.