Rightist Elected as Rome Mayor

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Alessandro Di Meo / EPA

Gianni Alemanno of the right-wing National Alliance party celebrates his victory in the election for Rome's mayor.

The new mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, has done a fine job of cleaning up his image from that formed during his stint as the angry, square-jawed head of Italy's post-fascist youth movement in the early 1980s. Rather than scuffling in far-right-wing street protests, the now 50-year-old has earned a solid center-right reputation for his agility in the legislative arena and on political talk shows. And though his jaw is still square, Alemanno is notably quicker to smile than he was in his tough-guy, jean-jacketed youth. That is all the more true after his surprise victory on Monday's elections, when he soundly defeated former mayor and prominent center-left leader Francesco Rutelli by a 54 to 46 margin.

The conservative candidate's runaway victory Monday night comes two weeks after center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi swept back into the Prime Minister's office by roundly defeating Walter Veltroni, who had served the past six years as Rome mayor. When he took up his campaign for national office, Veltroni passed the capital's center-left baton back to Rutelli, who had been a popular mayor through the 1990s. Rutelli, a vice-premier and high-profile culture minister under the recently folded government of Romano Prodi, had been strongly favored to defeat the center-right upstart in the Rome race. His failure to deliver is bound to cause new rifts within Italy's thoroughly dispirited center-left.

Alemanno has built a reputation as an articulate protégé of Gianfranco Fini, the rightist leader who brought the post-fascist movement into the mainstream in 1993 with the founding of the National Alliance party. Alemanno served as agriculture minister in Berlusconi's 2001-2006 government, and was allied in the mayoral run with Berlusconi backers in the newly formed Freedom Party. After years of centrist Christian Democratic mayors and a 15-year grip by the center-left, Rome now has its first rightist mayor since World War II.

Alemanno's image may be adequately scrubbed up, but some of his supporters Tuesday night celebrated on the steps of the Campidoglio city hall with "saluti Romani" — the Mussolini-era stiff-armed salute that was later adopted and made notorious by the Nazis. Alemanno has moved quickly to quell fears that he still espouses fascist ideals. Among his first gestures after the victory was to send telegrams to both Pope Benedict XVI and Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni. "I will be the mayor of all Romans: for those who voted for me, and those who didn't," he said. "We won't get dragged into the past when we're heading toward the future."

After no mayor candidate secured a 50% majority in April 13-14 elections, Rutelli and Alemanno upped their attacks against each other in the closing days, with much of rhetoric circulating around the issue of public safety after a high-profile rape case in Rome. Rutelli said Alemanno's populistic exploitation of law-and-order issues helped explain his victory.

As much as any sharp rightward turn in the capital, Alemanno's win is a sure sign that the center-left is in a dismal state. Veltroni, who was pummeled by Berlusconi two weeks ago, said the loss of Rome to the center-right was cause for "reflection." One question sure to be reflected on deeply in coming days: whether Veltroni himself can survive as the head of the opposition having presided over two such cutting defeats in the course of a mere two weeks.