Dozens of Italian cities go to the polls in local elections on Sunday, but Rome is more than ever where all eyes will be focused.
Rome is where a much bigger game with national repercussions is being played out, in the wake of a major corruption scandal.
The personal office of the Mayor of Rome, which has been vacant for more than six months, overlooks the ruins of the Imperial Fora – a reminder of the city’s grandiose past, as the heart of a civilisation that extended over continents.
Whoever occupies it after elections this weekend will have more mundane, local problems to deal with.
Rome’s next mayor will find a city mired in debt of more than €13bn (£10bn; $15bn) – twice its annual budget. Romans are frustrated by potholes, piles of garbage and serious deficiencies in public transport and housing.
The first round is pitching five main candidates against each other to replace Ignazio Marino, the former mayor forced to quit last year after losing his party’s support.
- Rome mayor ousted in ‘backstabbing’
- Rome mayor Ignazio Marino resigns over expenses row
- Five Star’s Beppe Grillo given jail term for slander
Leading the opinion polls is Virginia Raggi, a 37-year-old lawyer who is running on the populist Five Star Movement’s anti-politics platform.
Her prominence in the campaign – and the widespread perception that she could indeed nail the job in a likely second round – is seen as a sign that this election could reward those who intend to make a clean break with the city’s turbulent political history.
“Political parties have eaten Rome,” Ms Raggi said in her closing statement during a televised debate.
“We either change everything, or everything remains as it has always been,” she added in a dramatic tone, urging Romans to vote for transparency.
Ms Raggi has been criticised since her own political movement has been accused of a lack of transparency in some of the cities they govern around Italy.
But her message strikes a particular chord with many Romans – especially if you look at what is happening at a maximum security, fortified courtroom on the capital’s northern outskirts.
There, since November, dozens of former city officials and business leaders have been on trial, accused of corruption and malfeasance that syphoned off millions of euros from the administration – a case known as “Mafia Capitale”.
Prosecutors believe that most activities related to running the city – from the management of migrant centres to the handling of garbage collection – were tainted by a system of influence-peddling, entrenched across all levels of the city’s administration.
The revelations sent shockwaves across the political spectrum, indirectly triggered Mr Marino’s resignation, and left the mayor’s chair empty for the last half year.
Centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has gambled on Roberto Giachetti, a respected career politician who embodies his hopes to fend off the challenge from the Five Star Movement.
“He (Giachetti) knows the city hall machine, knows politics and the value of good administration,” Mr Renzi said during a final campaign rally.
A win in Rome for Five Star, a protest movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, would deliver a huge blow to Mr Renzi, in what could be a make-or-break year for his government. A referendum on his proposed constitutional reforms is slated for later in 2016.
The campaign has also had its share of controversial moments.
The right-wing candidate Giorgia Meloni – who in the past belonged to groups accused of defending Italy’s Fascist era – was harshly criticised by her former boss, Silvio Berlusconi, for running despite being in the late stages of her first pregnancy.
“A mother cannot dedicate herself to such a terrible job,” the ageing former prime minister was quoted as saying.
Then Berlusconi threw his political weight behind Alfio Marchini – a local property mogul who had until then branded himself as independent, free of party influences.
Fighting from the left-wing corner is Stefano Fassina, an economist who has put the city’s housing crisis at the heart of his campaign.
It is not only Rome that is going to the polls – so are affluent Milan, traditionally left-wing Bologna, Turin and Naples, along with hundreds of smaller municipalities.
Many of those races are expected to go to a second round on 19 June.
The “rebirth” of Rome that several candidates have promised will possibly have to wait another two weeks – a minuscule delay in a city that in April turned 2,769 years old.
But for Romans who have seen their city descend into decay, that new beginning can’t come soon enough.
Candidates for mayor of Rome:
- Mario Adinolfi: The People of Family
- Stefano Fassina: Italian Left
- Roberto Giachetti: Democratic Party
- Alfio Marchini: Alfio Marchini Mayor
- Giorgia Meloni: Meloni for Mayor
- Virginia Raggi: Five Star Movement