Italy set to elect Rome’s first female mayor

Italians began voting for mayors of their largest cities in a ballot that will test Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s popularity

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Italians began voting on Sunday for mayors of their largest cities in a ballot that will test Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s popularity and could hand control of Rome to the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S).

Virginia Raggi, a 37 year-old lawyer from the M5S, was in pole position to seize the scandal-plagued capital from Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) and become its first female mayor.

The PD took a bruising in the first round of voting on June 5. Italy’s four biggest cities are among 126 towns holding run-offs between first and second-placed candidates after none won more than 50 percent backing.

Attention is focused on Rome, financial hub Milan and the traditional PD stronghold Turin as 8.6 million people - just under a fifth of the total electorate - cast their vote.

Raggi won 35.2 percent in the first round, pushing Renzi’s candidate Roberto Giachetti into second place with a campaign promising to fight graft and privilege.

“Today we need two things: honesty and courage,” Raggi tweeted early on Sunday, quoting 20th century socialist politician and former president Sandro Pertini.

Conquering Rome would be a big victory for M5S, which has capitalised on widespread frustration with traditional parties as the left and right have been tainted by corruption scandals.

Persistent weakness in the euro zone’s third-largest economy has also fueled frustration. M5S has promised universal income support for the poor and a referendum on membership of the euro.

Renzi has said the vote will not hurt his left-right coalition government, but a bad showing will put him under pressure in his already divided party ahead of a referendum in October on which he has staked his political future.

The most politically significant contest for Renzi is in Milan, where he backed Giuseppe Sala, head of the 2015 Expo World Fair. Sala emerged from the first round barely a percentage point ahead of center-right rival Stefano Parisi.

In Turin, prominent PD incumbent Piero Fassino came out ahead in the first round but faces an unexpectedly tough challenge from M5S. In Bologna, another leftist bastion, the PD is expected to hold off the anti-immigrant Northern League.

Naples is a lost cause for the PD, whose candidate was knocked out in the first round. Italy’s third-biggest city looks set to give a second term to former prosecutor Luigi de Magistris, who has declared it a “Renzi-free zone”.

Voting opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will close at 11 p.m., when the result of exit polls will be announced for the main cities. Initial projections based on the vote count will be issued after about an hour, and then at regular intervals.