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Star of Italy's Five Star in freefall

Helena Kaschel
February 2, 2017

Corruption and cronyism, not transparency: Accusations against Rome's new mayor, Virginia Raggi, could seriously damage the Five Star Movement, says political scientist Jan Labitzke.

Italien Virginia Raggi -Roms Bürgermeisterin
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/A. Tarantino

Virginia Raggi's campaign slogan, #corragio - a fusing of her last name and the Italian word for courage - remains on her Twitter profile. The 38-year-old lawyer was a powerful symbol for Italy's Five Star Movement (M5S), a eurosceptic and populist party founded by the well-known Italian comedian, Beppe Grillo, as an alternative to establishment Italian politics. Raggi's victory in Rome's mayoral election was a big win for M5S, putting it in a strong position for the next parliamentary election. Raggi, Rome's first female mayor, stood for transparency and honesty, an enemy of corruption. However, the state prosecutor has now accused her of just that and other crimes.

DW: Mr. Labitzke, the Five Start Movement's political darling, Virginia Raggi, is being investigated just months after becoming Rome's mayor. Did she take on too much?

Jan Labitzke: One of the Five Star Movement's biggest problems is that it is relatively new and specifically focused on bringing young people into the political fold to draw them away from established parties. The movement does not have political or administrative experience to fall back on, and this is now to Raggi's disadvantage. She could not tap experienced people from her own party for posts, so she relied on people who held them under previous administrations. Past scandals are now landing at her feet.

Jan Labitzke
The M5S movement can't meet the standards it set for other parties, says LabitzkeImage: Timo Gertler

Raggi has been accused of abuse of power for awarding a generous salary to Tourism Director Renato Marra, the brother of her former advisor who is serving time for corruption. The city's sanitation manager, Paola Muraro, also had to resign. Do these personnel decisions suggest Raggi is overwhelmed?

She may be a victim of her own success. She is very young by Italian standards to hold office. However, she is also a lawyer who ran for the position. She is of course responsible for her staffing decisions as the mayor of Rome and should have given them more thought.

The Five Star Movement had itself stated that politicians must resign if they come under investigation - a statement Beppe Grillo went back on in early January. Can Raggi's resignation therefore be ruled out?

The rule was the Movement's attempt to present a clean image and distance itself from corrupt, sometimes previously convicted politicians from other parties. There is also the rule that those with previous convictions, such as Beppe Grillo himself, cannot run as Five Star Movement candidates. Critics and commentators are of course now speculating that the resignation rule was revoked in anticipation of the investigation, otherwise Raggi would have had to resign long ago.

It remains to be seen whether she has to resign or not. That will depend on how the investigation proceeds and the continuing support from her party. The mayor of Rome is very important for the Five Star Movement because it is aiming to gain a national majority for parliamentary elections and then take the prime minister post. That has all been called into question now.

Beppe Grillo
Five-star movement founder Beppe Grillo has leapt to Raggi's defenseImage: Reuters

What does Raggi's political downfall mean for M5S, especially on the national level?

What happened in Rome is a catastrophe for the Five Star Movement with respect to its political credibility. To be involved in a corruption and nepotism scandal just months after taking office shows that the movement cannot make good on its own promises.

The M5S Movement has positioned itself as a protest party and a new hope for Italian politics. How much resentment is there now among Italian voters?

Italy has yet again lost an alternative. Matteo Renzi also had great hopes pinned to him. He was expected to do away with the old political class and bring about the reforms Italians have long been waiting for. But he, too, was unable to stick to many of his own promises.

The Five Star Movement was for many an alternative, although it partly represents right-wing populist positions. This alternative now suffers not only from the Raggi scandal, but also how the scandal has been managed: going back on the resignation rule as a face-saving measure erodes voter trust. It reinforces the widely held belief that politicians are by and large corrupt.

Jan Labitzke is a political scientist and expert on Italy at the University of Giessen. Helena Kaschel conducted the interview.