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Virginia Raggi could be the answer to Rome's mess

Mayoral elections in Rome on Sunday could see the city welcoming its first female mayor. Should Virginia Raggi win, she will have her work cut out for her, as Megan Williams reports.

A few months ago at the end of my street in Rome, a sinkhole with a dangerous-looking web of cracks in the asphalt suddenly appeared.

For a city with a vast network of ancient quarries, ruins and catacombs just meters below the surface of the modern city, potholes are common enough.

The cause of this one, though, was rot and erosion from the roots of a giant umbrella pine that towered in the middle of the street.

Within a day, city officials put up metal barricades, then completely blocked off the street - an important thoroughfare in that neighborhood - to cars. Then nothing. No sign of repairing the sinkhole for days. Eventually a frustrated resident with a sense of humour put up a cardboard sign reading, "Careful: archeological site… from March 12 to ??"

a sign on a street copyright: Megan Williams

Rome's residents have learned to deal with their city's mess with a sense of humor

As any Roman inhabitant can tell you, the city is a mess: core services such as public transit (known as ATAC ) are woefully unreliable, garbage collection (AMA) infrequent. Outside the picturesque historic center lie landmines of garbage, dead trees and crumbling sidewalks and roads.

As a friend who grew up in the working class outskirts told DW, "The pothole that we used to splash around in after it rains when we were kids is still there 20 years later."

Desperation and disrepair

So it's no wonder that the state of disrepair of Rome is grabbing the headlines as citizens head to the polls this weekend to elected a new mayor. The previous mayor, center-left Ignazio Marino, did his best to stay at the helm as prosecutors charged city politicians and officials with pocketing millions of euros from rigged public contracts in a scandal dubbed "Mafia Capitale." In the end, Marino's own party pulled the plug on him and he was forced to step down.

Five candidates are now vying to replace him. Virginia Raggi, a 37-year-old lawyer and representative of the Five Star protest movement headed by comedian-political leader Beppe Grillo, is leading in the polls, with about 30 percent.

She has plans to improve public transit, relaunch a failed bike sharing scheme, and even ban credit cards among city councilors as a way to stop padding expenses.

Raggi's main tactic has been to relentlessly repeat the Five Star slogan about Italian politicians - "Send them all home!" - and to point out that both center-right and center-left are responsible for Rome's enormous debt - some 12 billion euros ($13 billion).

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Clean sweep?

While a clean sweep of the traditional parties is appealing to many enraged Roman citizens, critics point out that Raggi's plans for change are vague.

"She just keeps saying that everyone else is to blame for all the problems of Rome," says Fabio Farina, a long-time Rome resident and alternative energy consultant. "This may be true, but I still don't understand how she plans on solving problems no one else has been able to so far," he told DW.

Raggi's strongest competition is former Radical and now Democratic Party member Roberto Giachetti. Like Raggi, Giachetti is promising to clean up the city through more checks and balances. Unlike Raggi, he's behind Rome's bid for the 2024 Olympics, calling it "crazy" not to use the opportunity to signal a change in the city, and pushing for more investment in tourism and culture.

His full backing by Prime Minster Matteo Renzi is both an asset and deterrent. One the one hand, if elected, his close ties with Renzi would help facilitate access to desperately need money and support from Italy's national government. On the other hand, after the debacle of Mayor Marino, many voters are fed up with the Democratic Party.

Whoever wins the race faces nearly insurmountable problems.

Bogged down in debt

To avoid declaring bankruptcy, Rome's now mammoth debt was shifted to a separate accounting structure. The scheme to pay the billions back, 500 million a year, involves a scheme whereby through taxes, Roman inhabitants pay back 200 million, with the remaining 300 million euros through taxes throughout the rest of Italy.

ATAC and AMA have proved to be endless sinkholes of inefficiency, with a tendency to voraciously devour any bailout money the public services receive. The transport company alone has accrued more than a billion euros in debt.

people waiting for a tram copyright: Megan Williams

On a train to nowhere? Roman citizens are passionate about their city, but patience is wearing thin

The city's troubles don't end there. A large portion of municipal workers' salaries was supposed to include compensation based on job performance, financed through central government transfers. Past administrations, however, unilaterally decided to skip performance evaluations and distribute the money evenly among all city workers. The Ministry of Finance did not take well to this loose interpretation of the funds' application and has demanded that Rome pay back the top-up, to a tune of several hundred million euros.

While Rome's financial troubles need urgent remedy, observers point out that, apart from talk about improving tourism services, candidates have given little thought to the changing demographics of their city.

Multicultural but not intercultural

In the meantime, Rome is rapidly transforming to more closely resemble its multicultural European fellow capitals London and Paris, with some half a million immigrants now living in the city.

Yet, as Ejaz Ahmad, an intercultural mediator with UNAR, Italy's anti-discrimination office, points out, none of the candidates has given an serious thought on how to help integrate these communities, present in the city for at least 30 years now.

"Rome is a multicultural city, but it's not becoming an intercultural city, with integration," says Ahmad. "None of these five mayoral candidates has immigrants on their list. The candidates in Milan's mayor elections have pages on how they'll deal with integration. Rome's candidates have just a few lines."

In the meantime, those of us who live in Rome make due with small victories.

It took three weeks for the sinkhole at the end of my street to be repaired. The beautiful towering pine was cut down and the erosion and rot underground cleared up and filled in.

One can only hope the same happens for the city's administration one day.

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