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Center-left wins Rome as voters reject right-winger accused of antisemitism

Roberto Gualtieri elected mayor of capital, the main prize in Italy local vote that saw right parties lose out in other key cities

Center-left mayoral candidate Roberto Gualtieri flashes a v-sign at his party's headquarters in Rome, October 18, 2021. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
Center-left mayoral candidate Roberto Gualtieri flashes a v-sign at his party's headquarters in Rome, October 18, 2021. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

ROME, Italy — Romans have elected a center-left former economy minister as their next mayor, rejecting by a large margin a right-wing contender dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, near-final results showed Monday.

With counting complete in more than 92 percent of polling stations, Roberto Gualtieri was leading with more than 60% over Enrico Michetti, a lawyer and local talk radio host with no prior political experience.

“The result is clear cut. I wish good luck to Roberto Gualtieri,” the loser of the second-round run-off vote said in a concession statement.

Michetti’s campaign was derailed last week when he was forced to deny accusations of antisemitism over an article he wrote last year that was unearthed by a left-wing newspaper.

In it, he said the Holocaust was commemorated more than other massacres because the Jews “control banks and a lobby capable of deciding the fate of the planet.”

Michetti, who describes himself as a moderate, had also previously suggested that the stiff-armed Roman salute — commonly used by fascists — should be used during the coronavirus pandemic because it was more hygienic.

Enrico Michetti speaks during a Rome mayoral election campaign rally in Rome, September 18, 2021. (LaPresse via AP)

Gualtieri, 55, is seen as a safe pair of hands.

A trained historian whose only known extravagance is a love for playing Brazilian music on the guitar, he served in government during 2019-2021, and was previously head of the European Parliament’s economic affairs committee.

His victory marked another setback for Italy’s right-wing bloc, which despite leading in national opinion polls, lost other key mayoral battles in a first round of local elections two weeks ago — namely in Milan, Naples and Bologna.

A choice of lackluster candidates and divisions due to the internal rivalry between Matteo Salvini of the nationalist League and Giorgia Meloni of the hard-right Brothers of Italy were offered as explanations for the bloc’s poor showing.

“I think we have to recognize that the center-right has been defeated,” Meloni said. “We are all aware of it.”

Analysts do not expect the result of the two rounds of local voting to destabilize Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government, which is backed by a left-right coalition including the League but not FDI.

Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta predicted that the center-left wins over right-wing alliances will dampen any push by conservative forces, which include the anti-migrant League party, to hold an early national election. That enhances Premier Mario Draghi’s prospects of continuing in office until Parliament’s term expires in 2023.

Letta also interpreted the Democratic Party-anchored winning alliances as resounding affirmation of Draghi’s tough anti-pandemic policies. Those include a recently implemented Green Pass decree that workers must be vaccinated, recently recovered from COVID-19 or test negative for the virus to enter their workplaces. The rule has sparked protests, including violence, mainly by right-wing opponents.

On Monday, the center-left also won Turin, Italy’s automotive capital in the northwest. Both Rome and Turin were previously run by the formerly anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which suffered a rout.

Rome’s current 5-Star mayor, Virginia Raggi, was eliminated in first-round voting and the 5-Star mayor in Turin had declined to seek another term.

Leader of Brothers of Italy party, Giorgia Meloni, addresses the media after meeting Mario Draghi, at the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, February 5, 2021. (Riccardo Antimiani/Pool via AP)

Aside from the capital, more than 60 towns and cities held mayoral elections between Sunday and Monday. Turnout was very low at under 44 percent, and analysts said it was mostly center-right voters who stayed away.

In the Eternal City, the campaign was dominated by complaints about its state of disrepair, including old buses that catch fire due to lack of maintenance and piles of uncollected rubbish in the streets that attract wild boars and rats.

“Rome cannot resign itself to talking about just rubbish and potholes. Rome is a great European capital,” Gualtieri said at his closing rally on Friday.

The sole notable defeat for the center-left came in Trieste, where the center-right mayor, Roberto Dipiazza, won another term with 51.5% of the vote. Many angry port workers in that northeast city have opposed the Green Pass rule. On Monday, riot police repeatedly used water cannons to try to break up the protest, but demonstrators were still squaring off with officers into the evening.

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