ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement looked likely to take charge of Rome after municipal elections at the weekend, piling pressure on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi ahead of his career-defining reform referendum due in about four months.
The 5-Star Movement, campaigning hard against corruption, also made gains in other Italian cities in Sunday’s voting, echoing the rise of anti-establishment parties across Europe.
With more than 80 percent of voting districts counted, the 5-Star candidate in Rome, Virginia Raggi, led with around 36 percent of the vote, ahead of the candidate from Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) with almost 25 percent.
Raggi and PD candidate Roberto Giachetti now head to a run-off vote on June 19.
“The wind is changing, this is the moment,” Raggi told her supporters in the early hours of Monday.
“We are facing a historic moment,” the 37-year-old lawyer added. “The Romans are ready to turn a page and I am ready to govern this city and to restore Rome to the splendor and beauty that it deserves.”
The first-round results were a clear setback for Renzi, who has staked his political future on a referendum in October over a contested constitutional reform, which is aimed at bringing stability to politics and end Italy’s tradition of revolving-door governments.
The 41-year-old prime minister has said he will stand down if he loses the referendum, a gamble that could usher in a new era of political chaos and revive market turbulence in the euro zone’s third-largest economy.
Unlike other non-traditional parties that have flourished across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, the 5-Star Movement straddles ideological divides, focusing its anger on rampant graft in Italy more than austerity or immigration.
Victory in Rome, which has been battered by corruption scandals, would represent a major step forward for the party, which was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo.
Success in governing the Eternal City could prove a spring board to winning power in general elections that are due in 2018, but could come earlier depending on the outcome of the referendum.
Renzi played little part in the municipal election campaign until the final week, saying the vote reflected local concerns not national interests, and promising that it would have no impact on his government.
Raggi will be the city’s first female mayor if she wins the run-off vote on June 19, and promises to crackdown on graft, cronyism and everyday illegality like fare-dodging and double-parking that have become the norm in dilapidated Rome.
Rome’s previous mayor came from the PD and was forced out in October after a scandal over his dining expenses.
That affair left Renzi with a mountain to climb in Rome, but he had hopes of a clear victory in Milan, where he hand-picked the PD candidate, Giuseppe Sala, who headed last year’s successful Expo World Fair in Italy’s financial capital.
Instead, with the vote count almost final in Milan, Sala took 42 percent of the vote, less than a percentage point more than center-right candidate Stefano Parisi, leaving the two to square off again in two weeks time.
In Turin, historical home of carmaker Fiat, the incumbent center-left mayor Piero Fassino led the field with 42 percent, but will have a tough second round against 5-Star candidate Chiara Appendino, who got 31 percent.
In Naples, leftist incumbent Luigi de Magistris, an independent former prosecutor who has declared the city a “Renzi-free zone”, won 42 percent in the first round and will be challenged by a center-right candidate in the run-off.
In Bologna, a traditional center-left stronghold, the PD-backed candidate won about 40 percent, less than expected, and will face a right-wing candidate in the run-off.
Additional reporting by Steve Scherer.; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Mark Bendeich