• Lawyer Virginia Raggi takes 10-point lead into Sunday’s runoff
  • Results could threaten prime minister’s goal of October vote

A rebellion against Italy’s scandal-plagued elite could hand Rome’s city hall to the populist Five Star Movement on Sunday, casting doubt over Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts to fix the country’s political system.

Virginia Raggi, 37, a lawyer and former opposition counselor, is poised to become the capital’s first female mayor and score the biggest victory so far for the anti-establishment, euro-skeptic Five Star group. Raggi led in the first round on June 5 with 35 percent of the vote, 10 percentage points more than Roberto Giachetti of Renzi’s Democratic Party or PD, who she faces in the run off. Mayors will also be elected in cities including Milan, Turin and Naples.

Five Star is advancing as populists like the Alternative for Germany, France’s National Front, and Podemos in Spain capitalize on voters’ frustrations with the traditional establishment and the lackluster economy. Raggi’s success marks Five Star’s evolution from ex-comedian Beppe Grillo’s maverick movement into a mainstream force that could threaten the government’s own reform efforts as Renzi prepares for a referendum on constitutional reform.

The premier has promised to step down if he loses a plebiscite penciled in for October on his attempt to end the revolving-door governments that have plagued Italy since the war. Renzi’s overhaul would reduce the number of senators to 100 from 315, and curtail the upper house’s power to topple governments by calling no-confidence votes.

Renzi Slipping

While Renzi’s PD is still the most popular party more than two years after he took office, its lead is narrowing. An opinion poll by the Ixe Institute last month credited the party with 30.5 percent of the vote, compared with the 40.8 percent it won in the 2014 European election. Five Star received 28.1 percent while the anti-immigration Northern League had 14.8 percent.

A victory for Raggi in Rome would be seen as another slap to the prime minister. The previous PD Rome mayor, Ignazio Marino, stepped down in an expenses scandal and Raggi has won widespread support with a pledge to overhaul the city’s Byzantine administration and institute tight checks on public contracts, a key source of corruption. She also gave a nod to some of Five Star’s quirkier policy ideas with a call for “additional currencies” to be used alongside the euro.

For Transport Minister Graziano Delrio, who previously served as Renzi’s chief of staff, the PD’s poor showing in the first round of the local elections spotlights “dissatisfaction in metropolitan areas, especially in Rome and Naples.” In an interview at his Rome office, Delrio said the government’s response must be to push ahead with reforms “to consolidate the recovery.”

Whose Ideas?

So far, changes to the jobs market and banking sector have failed to boost the economy much, with growth seen at 1.1 percent this year and 1.2 percent next, compared with 0.8 percent in 2015, according to the Bank of Italy.

Renzi’s reaction to the first round was to trumpet his reforms in speeches to business conferences. He’s courted the populist vote with a call for prime ministers to be limited to serving two five-year terms and pushed through a decree Wednesday toughening sanctions on public employees who skip work -- a local police officer was pictured clocking on in underpants and a T-shirt late last year.

“Renzi is doing this just for show, he’s copying and pasting our long-standing call for a limit on two mandates,” Five Star lawmaker Carla Ruocco said. “As for public service employees who cheat, the government has been talking about that for ages. Why doesn’t Renzi pass a proper law against corruption to really clean things up?”

Making Government Work

Renzi told a group of young businessmen in Santa Margherita Ligure in northern Italy last week that the referendum is basically about whether Italy can be governed or not.

“If Merkel presses a button, something happens,” he said. “The same goes for Cameron and Obama. Here if someone presses a button, there’s no wire connected and nothing moves.”

Giovanni Orsina, deputy-director of the school of government at Luiss University in Rome, said losing Rome and Milan, where the PD and the center-right are neck and neck, would be “a blow” for Renzi, but losing Turin too -- where Five Star trailed the PD by 42 percent to 31 percent after the first round -- would be “a catastrophe.”

“If Renzi does badly in the run-offs, that means people are more against him than for him, and so the referendum would become a risk,” Orsina said. “If Renzi loses all three cities, his reforms will come to a virtual stop because everything will be focused on the referendum.”

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