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Some 13 million people, or a quarter of the adult population, were eligible to vote for mayors in around 1,300 towns and cities, with attention focused firmly on a handful of major centres, including the capital.
Projections based on partial counts put the 5-Star candidate in Rome, Virginia Raggi, ahead with around 37 percent of the vote, while Roberto Giachetti, from Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD), and far-right candidate Giorgia Meloni were vying for second place with around 22 percent each.
If no-one wins more than 50 percent, run-offs between the top two candidates will be held on June 19, with second-round ballots expected in the major cities up for grabs.
Unlike other non-traditional parties that have flourished across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, the 5-Star Movement straddles ideological divides, focusing its anger on rampant graft in Italy more than austerity or immigration.
Victory in Rome, which has been battered by corruption scandals, would represent a major step forward for the party, which was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo.
Success in governing the Eternal City could prove a spring board to winning power in general elections that are due in 2018.
“The wind is changing, this is the moment,” Raggi told her supporters in the early hours of Monday. Renzi played little part in the municipal election campaign until the final week, saying the vote reflected local concerns not national interests, and promising that it would have no impact on his government.
Instead, he has staked his political future on a referendum in October on a contested constitutional reform, which is aimed at bringing stability to politics and end Italy’s tradition of revolving-door governments.
Renzi has said he will quit politics if he loses that.
Raggi will be the city’s first female mayor if she wins on June 19, and promises to crackdown on graft, cronyism and everyday illegality like fare-dodging and double-parking that have become the norm in dilapidated Rome.
“We are facing a historic moment,” said the 37-year-old lawyer. “The Romans are ready to turn a page and I am ready to govern this city and to restore Rome to the splendour and beauty that it deserves.”
The previous mayor came from the PD and was forced out in October following a scandal over his dining expenses.
That affair left Renzi with a mountain to climb in Rome, but he had hopes of a clear victory in Milan, where he hand-picked the PD candidate, Giuseppe Sala, who headed last year’s successful Expo World Fair in Italy’s financial capital.
However, the race appeared very tight, with projections putting Sala neck-and-neck with centre-right candidate Stefano Parisi, leaving the second-round ballot wide open.
Projections suggested that in Turin, historical home of carmaker Fiat, the incumbent centre-left mayor Piero Fassino led the field but was likely to face an unexpectedly tough run-off against a 5-Star candidate.
Naples looked set to be held by leftist incumbent Luigi de Magistris, an independent former prosecutor who has declared the city a “Renzi-free zone”.
In Bologna, a traditional centre-left stronghold, the PD-backed candidate was ahead by less than expected, and will probably face the right-wing Northern League in the run-off.