Why doesn't anyone want to be Mayor of Rome?

Roberto Gualtieri

The first weekend of October will bring a new round of elections in Italy. As was the case this time last year, and precisely in connection with the coronavirus problem, election day will be held on two consecutive days, ending at 15:00 on 4 October. However, unlike in September 2020, what is at stake is not the government of up to seven regions and a "referendum" on the taglio ("reduction") of the number of national parliamentarians, but the mayoralty of the country's main cities, although it should be remembered that not only these cities, but also almost 1,200 other municipalities are up for renewal. The new government of the southern region of Calabria will also be decided in this election, since, although the elections should have been held in more than three years' time, the death of the region's president (Jole Santelli, who died of cancer at the end of 2020) has required a new call for elections in which everything suggests that the centre-right (to which Santelli belonged) will continue to govern Calabria. 

In any case, what is most striking in this new election is what is happening around the mayoralty of the country's capital (Rome). The fact is that the two favourites for the final victory (Gualtieri, for the centre-left, and Michetti, for the centre-right), have little or no interest in becoming the new councillors of the "Eternal City". In reality, according to the polls, it is the third (Virginia Raggi) and fourth (former minister Calenda) who really want to win the city council seat, but neither of them has a real chance of winning because they will not even make it to the "ballotaggio" (second round), a "ballotaggio" where the contenders will almost certainly be the aforementioned Gualtieri and Michetti.

In the case of Gualtieri, he is a party man (he has been a member of the Democratic Party (PD), the main centre-left party since its inception) who has spent most of his political career in the European institutions. He has also been Minister of Economy and Finance between September 2019 and February 2021, but he has done nothing in municipal politics: the only reason to put him as a candidate is, as we say, being a party man and... he was born in Rome, where he was born on a hot July day in 1966.

Michetti, the centre-right candidate, is also Roman, but he does not even have a political career behind him. He is a lawyer and professor of public law, of the same generation as Gualtieri (he is also 55 years old at the moment) and has been the candidate chosen by Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy, the centre-right force with the highest level of support in and around Rome. His candidacy contrasts with that of the previous member of this party (in fact, at the time, Brothers of Italy was called the National Alliance and its leader was not Meloni, but Gianfranco Fini, now retired from politics) who won the mayoralty of Rome in 2008: Gianni Alemanno, a member of parliament since the 1994-96 legislature and Minister of Agriculture between April 2005 and May 2006. In that sense, Alemanno's term as Mayor of Rome (2008-13) left much to be desired, but Meloni knows that his centre-right rival, Matteo Salvini, cannot field a man from his party because his party (the Lega) has spent decades alluding to the country's capital with the derogatory saying "Rome, thief".

In contrast to these two candidates (Gualtieri and Michetti), the other two in the running, as we have said, have shown every desire to win the city's alderman's baton, but their chances, barring a monumental surprise, are very remote. Raggi, a young 42-year-old lawyer who has spent her entire political career in the Roman Consistory (she was in the opposition from 2013 to 2016, and then became the new mayor), has not only managed the city rather poorly (Rome is dirtier and more neglected than ever), but she does not even really have the support of her party, the Five Star Movement. In fact, the leadership of the 'pentastellino' party would have preferred her not to run at all in order to support Gualtieri, given that at the moment many centre-left candidates are running on a joint PD-Five Star list, but they could not refuse Raggi's insistence on trying to re-elect her.

The other candidate who has made it clear that he is keen to become the new mayor of Rome is Calenda, former minister for economic development in the Renzi and Gentiloni governments and an MEP. Calenda was head of the PD's ticket in the European elections of May 2019, but decided to leave the party after disagreeing completely with the pact it made with the Five Star Movement, which led to the "giallo-rosso" government of September 2019. He decided to found a new party, Azione, which has good voting intentions at the moment, but his party is no match for one of the size of the PD. He is supported by former prime minister Matteo Renzi's Italia Viva, but between them they have about a third of the PD's current vote share. This was something Calenda already knew, and so in the autumn of 2020, when the PD was not sure who to put forward for the mayoralty of Rome, he asked the leadership of the centre-left party to nominate him as a candidate, but was met with a resounding "no". From then on, he has continued with his intention of becoming the new Roman mayor, but, like Raggi, he gives the impression that he has no chance of making it through to the aforementioned "ballotaggio", which, on the other hand, seems assured since no candidate has received more than 35% of the vote in the polls carried out so far. 

The reality is that Rome is no longer the launching pad for politicians who want to become prime ministers one day. The clearest example of what was and is no longer is represented by the now retired Veltroni, mayor of Rome between 2006 and 2008. Veltroni, a communist from the beginning, had already been not only deputy prime minister in the first Prodi government (1996-98), but also head of Cultural Heritage. Veltroni decided to leave national politics to become mayor of Rome, his hometown, and with this poster he then decided to leave the Consistory of the capital at the end of February 2008 to become the centre-left candidate in the general elections in May of the same year. It should not be forgotten that Veltroni had been elected first secretary general of the Democratic Party (PD) after its foundation in October 2007. Although he was eventually swept by the centre-right in the 2008 general elections, the reality was that Veltroni was a 'heavyweight' of the centre-left and wanted the Rome mayoralty to serve as a launching pad for his bid for the presidency of the Council of Ministers.

A similar case, although his figure was clearly of lesser importance than Veltroni's, was that of Ignazio Marino. A candidate for secretary general in the primaries won by Veltroni in 2007, Marino managed to win back the Roman mayoralty for the centre-left in the May 2013 elections. But an alleged corruption affair on the occasion of Marino's trip to the United States accompanying the Pope forced him to resign in November 2015. Although Marino was eventually acquitted, by that time Marino had already resigned and a Prefect sent by the Renzi government had passed through Rome so that the young lawyer Virginia Raggi could finally take over the city's mayoralty.

Already in the June 2016 elections in which Raggi was elected, the lack of interest of both the centre-right and the centre-left in taking control of the Roman Consistory was evident. It was the centre-left, led by Roberto Giachhetti, who managed to get through to the second round together with Raggi, but the latter won a very clear victory that has given her the possibility of being the mayor of the country's capital for the last five years. Now she wants to repeat her mandate, but, as we have already said, everything seems to indicate that she has no chance of doing so.

What is the reason why no one wants to be mayor of Rome? First and foremost, the huge debt that has been dragging on for years, currently standing at more than 12 billion. A debt that has also increased substantially with everything that has happened because of the coronavirus, since Rome depends a lot on the influx of visitors and for most of 2020, and also part of 2021, it has been at a minimum of visitors. Meanwhile, the buildings (in a city where most of the ministries are located in palaces, such as the Viminale or the Farnesina) continue to deteriorate; the metro (already limited to two lines by the amount of archaeological remains in the subsoil) works worse and worse; and rubbish accumulates to intolerable levels.

In reality, there is only one way out of the current impasse: with massive investment in the city as a whole. Gualtieri, as a man with very good contacts within the European Union, can achieve this financing, but what the current government decides to do is probably even more important. The fact is that the "premier" (Mario Draghi) is also a Roman by birth, and it is well known that Romans are very proud of the fact that they are natives of the "Eternal City". Of course, the main problem is that it is not known how long this prestigious banker and economist will remain prime minister, and he has a lot of reforms to carry out before then, among which the digital and ecological transition stand out particularly strongly. The only thing that is clear is that the "Eternal City", where the only remarkable thing that has been done in recent years has been the complete renovation of its main airport (the "Leonardo Da Vinci-Fiumicino"), cannot continue in its current state of neglect, because it is the only one of the main European capitals that is in this state. But it is equally true that, at the moment, no one of any relevance wants to be mayor of the city. Seeing is believing.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book 'Historia de la Italia republicana, 1946-2021' (Sílex Ediciones, 2021).