ROME -- Millions of people in Italy started voting Sunday for new mayors, including in Rome and Milan, in an election widely seen as a test of political alliances before nationwide balloting just over a year away.
The two days of voting end on Monday and the first results are expected afterwards. But many voters will have to wait two weeks to learn who their mayor will be.
Runoffs will be held Oct. 17-18 in municipalities with more than 15,000 people between the top two vote-getters if no single candidate garners more than 50% of the ballots.
Nearly all the mayoral races in the biggest cities, including Rome, Turin, Naples and Bologna, are expected to see runoffs. Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala has told supporters he thinks they might be able to win enough votes to give him another five-year term without a runoff.
Around 12 million people, or roughly 20% of Italy’s population, are eligible to vote in the mayoral races.
Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi, a prominent populist 5-Star Movement figure, has been fighting an uphill battle to keep her office. Opinion polls indicated that the likely two top vote-getters in the 22-candidate field will be a center-left Democratic and a right-wing candidate who is backed by anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party with neo-fascist roots.
When Raggi took the helm of the city in 2016, she inherited a mess, and many of the the Italian capital's problems persist. Piles of uncollected trash still blighted the city, several subway stations were shut down for months for maintenance and aging buses often broke down on their routes, sometimes going on fire, during her tenure.
Besides casting her ballot, Raggi on Sunday morning inspected the site of a fire that damaged a bridge spanning the Tiber and a settlement of riverbank shacks occupied by homeless persons, another illustration of Rome's chronic problems.
Salvini and Meloni, while officially right-wing allies, have been warily sizing each other up, since both have ambitions to be Italian premier. A parliamentary election is due in early 2023, but both leaders have been pressing to vote sooner.
The 5-Star Movement, currently Parliament's largest party, has suffered internal bickering. Its newly elected leader, former Premier Giuseppe Conte, who has been trying to heal the divisions, heavily backed Raggi and rebuffed overtures by the Democrat Party to throw its backing behind the Democrat running to be Rome's mayor.
The Democrats will likely need an alliance with the Movement to counter the rising popularity of right-wing forces when national elections are held. After national elections, alliances will be crucial in forming a government, since in Italy’s fractured political spectrum, no one party can count on any significant likelihood of governing alone.
Thus, how the mayoral campaign alliances fare in this month’s municipal races will be dissected as a possible indication of Italians’ sentiment when they next vote for national leadership.
"The competition (and the barometer) of the leaders” of the political party chiefs' jockeying for advantage, Corriere della Sera's headline about the voting said.
Salvini’s League is a coalition member of Premier Mario Draghi’s unity government, formed earlier this year to lead the country through the COVID-19 pandemic. Meloni was the only major leader to refuse to join the unusual coalition, which includes technocrats as well as ministers from leftist, centrists, right-wing and populist parties.
Since the 5-Stars triumph in the last election for Parliament, in 2018, the Movement's popularity plummeted in gubernatorial balloting and in public opinion polls.
Voters in southern Calabria in the “toe” of the Italian peninsula are also electing a governor, replacing one who died of cancer while in office last year.