Reuters International

Virginia Raggi, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement's candidate for Rome mayor, arrives for an interview with Reuters in Rome, Italy May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

(reuters_tickers)

By Crispian Balmer and Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement looked likely to take charge of Rome after country-wide municipal elections at the weekend, piling pressure on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi ahead of a vital constitutional referendum due in October.

With the Rome count almost complete, 5-Star candidate Virginia Raggi, a 37-year-old lawyer running her first campaign, led with just over a third of the vote, ahead of the candidate from Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) with a quarter. The race will be decided by a run-off vote on June 19.

Renzi voiced disappointment on Monday at the results but cautioned against reading too much into local elections, where issues ranged from garbage collection to traffic congestion.

The vote was widely seen as a test for Renzi's two-and-a-half year-old government, but he rejected this and said it would have no impact on the outcome of the upcoming referendum.

"I am not worried," he told a news conference.

The 41-year-old prime minister has staked his political future on winning the referendum, which is aimed at bringing stability to politics and ending Italy's tradition of revolving-door governments.

He has said he will stand down if he loses, a gamble that could trigger political chaos and revive market turbulence in the euro zone's third-largest economy.

Renzi denied Sunday's vote was a triumph for the 5-Star Movement, which draws support from voter anger against corruption, saying it had only flourished in Rome and Turin, out of some 1,300 towns and cities that went to the polls.

5-Star, which was founded just seven years ago by comedian Beppe Grillo, has a loose political structure and did not even present a candidate for mayor in the vast majority of towns.

Renzi said the right-wing Northern League party had failed to make major advances.

"If this had been a protest vote then we would have seen the 5-Star and Northern League doing strongly everywhere. But that didn't happen," said Renzi, who played little part in municipal campaigning until the final week.

However in Rome, 5-Star's Raggi described the shift to her part as historic.

"The wind is changing, this is the moment," she told her supporters in the early hours of Monday.

"We are facing a historic moment," she added. "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."

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.

ROMAN SPLENDOUR

Victory in Rome, which has been battered by corruption scandals, would represent a major step forward for the party, which governs in just a handful of mainly small cities.

Success in running the Eternal City could prove a spring board to winning power in general elections that are due in 2018, but could come earlier depending on the outcome of the referendum.

Raggi will be the city's first female mayor if she wins the run-off vote on June 19. She promises to crackdown on graft, cronyism and everyday illegality like fare-dodging and double-parking that have become the norm in dilapidated Rome.

Rome's previous mayor came from the PD and was forced out in October after 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, Sala emerged with only a slender advantage over centre-right candidate Stefano Parisi, taking 42 percent of the vote, less than a percentage point more than his rival. The pair will square off again in two weeks time.

Apart from Rome, the PD suffered a major setback in Naples, where it failed to make a run-off ballot.

However, Renzi's party remains the single largest force in Italy's fragmented politics and led in the two other major cities, Turin and Bologna, where there will also be a run-off.

"We are not happy," Renzi said. "We had wanted to do better, especially in Naples."

There the leftist incumbent Luigi de Magistris, an independent former prosecutor who has declared the city a "Renzi-free zone", won 42 percent in the first round and looks well placed to see off a centre-right candidate in the run-off.

In Turin, historical home of carmaker Fiat, the incumbent centre-left mayor Piero Fassino led the field with 42 percent, but faces a tough second round against 5-Star candidate Chiara Appendino, who got 31 percent.

In Bologna, a traditional centre-left stronghold, the PD-backed candidate won about 40 percent, less than expected, and will face a right-wing candidate in the run-off.

(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer, Editing by Crispian Balmer, Mark Bendeich and Angus MacSwan)

reuters_tickers

 Reuters International