Italy’s center-left claim mayoral wins; populists slump

ROME (AP) — Italy’s center-left forces, spearheaded by the Democrats, were sweeping to victory Monday in Milan and other big city mayoral races while clinching a runoff berth in Rome, where the populist 5-Star Movement’s incumbent Mayor Virginia Raggi faced a stinging defeat, according to partial vote counts and projections.

The 5-Stars, currently Parliament’s largest party, also failed to clinch a mayoral runoff slot in Turin, where one of their own had been mayor since 2016, with nearly 40% of the ballots counted.

In both Rome and Turin, 5-Star leaders had rebuffed Democrat Party overtures to join in an election alliance to battle right-wing forces and chose to run solo. Instead, where the two forces did team up, the candidates backed by Democrats and the 5-Stars appeared headed to resounding victories.

“You win where you broaden the coalition,” said Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta, citing the joint ticket’s first-round outright victories in Naples and Bologna.

Letta has been trying to convince the populist 5-Stars to embrace campaign alliances with an eye to national voting for Parliament in early 2023. He is determined to shut out of Italy’s next government the right-wing forces that in past years have been gaining in popularity, especially in gubernatorial races and especially the anti-migrant League party led by Matteo Salvini.

Separately, Letta, a former premier, won a seat in the lower Chamber of Deputies in a by-election in Siena to fill a vacancy in Parliament.

Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, a center-left leader as well as a Europe Greens party proponent, claimed a decisive win for a second term based on partial returns indicating he would take 56% of the vote in Italy’s financial and fashion industry capital. Trailing badly, with 33.4% was Luca Bernardo, a Milan pediatrician who was Salvini’s candidate.

Salvini has ambitions to win the premiership of a center-right government he hopes will be formed after Italy’s parliamentary election.

But with wins in Milan, Naples and Bologna and spots in mayoral runoffs in Rome and Turin, “we showed that the center-right is beatable,” Letta told supporters.

If projections hold, Rome’s mayoral runoff will pit Democrat Roberto Gualtieri, a former finance minister, against Enrico Michetti, a radio commentator selected by Giorgia Meloni, who leads the far-right Brothers of Italy party. Meloni and Salvini are rivals for the next premiership.

Premier Mario Draghi, an economist who formerly headed the European Central Bank, is currently heading a pandemic-unity government that includes both Letta’s Democratic Party, Salvini’s League as well as the 5-Stars and smaller parties.

Key to winning the Rome mayoral runoff will be wooing support from Raggi’s disappointed backers. The 5-Star Movement has been squabbling for months, including among left-leaning and right-leaning factions.

In Rome, Michetti appeared headed to take 30.6% of the first-round votes, compared to 26.9% for Gualtieri, and 19.6% apiece for Raggi and Carlo Calenda, a centrist former minister, according to projections for state TV on Monday night, five hours after the polls had closed.

“Rome can be reborn” and well-governed, Gualtieri told supporters Monday night.

Michetti didn’t immediately comment.

In all, 12 million of Italy’s 60 million population were eligible to vote in 1,000 cities and towns nationwide, but turnout, at just under 55%, was down 7% compared to the last mayoral elections in 2016.

When Raggi won that year, she inherited Rome’s entrenched problems — unreliable trash collection, mass transit woes and streets in dire need of repair. Those woes largely persisted during her tenure. The 5-Star Movement’s new leader, former Premier Giuseppe Conte, campaigned heavily for her.

How Salvini’s League fares in races in Italy’s south was being closely watched as a litmus test of whether he can convincingly expand his north-based political power into a nationwide force.

His candidate in Naples, the south’s largest city, polled about 20%, badly trailing the winning candidate who was backed by the Democrats and 5-Stars and who was taking 65.5% of the vote, according to partial returns.

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