The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, is in danger of being ousted in local elections, according to exit polls, which showed a far-right candidate ahead in the race for Italy’s capital.
Raggi was hoping to win a second mandate, but exit polls place her in third position with between 16.5% and 20.5% of the vote.
Enrico Michetti, a candidate for the Brothers of Italy party backed by the far-right League and Forza Italia, was in the lead with 27-31%, while Roberto Gualtieri, from the centre-left Democratic party, was slightly behind him.
As neither of the top two candidates is expected to get 50% of the vote, they will face each other in a runoff on 17 and 18 October.
Despite Michetti, a lawyer and radio host, having the edge, he is expected to be defeated by Gualtieri, a former economy minister, in the runoff as Gualtieri picks up the votes of Raggi and Carlo Calenda, the fourth candidate defeated in the first round.
But whoever is elected the next mayor of Rome will face a massive challenge to manage a complex city beset by deeply entrenched issues. Raggi was saddled with €13bn (£11bn) worth of debt when she took the helm.
A recent study of the city’s last five mayors found that most had failed to achieve promises made during election campaigns.
Mayoral elections have also been held in Milan, Turin, Bologna and Naples as well as in more than 1,000 small towns.
The loss of Rome would be a major blow for Raggi’s Five Star Movement (M5S), which is also on track to lose the northern Italian city of Turin after five years of leadership.
Raggi, who was Rome’s first female mayor, won a landslide victory in 2016 during a high note for the populist M5S. She promised “winds of change” in a city where meaningful progress had been hindered by decades of inefficiency and corruption scandals.
But disappointment soon set in as rubbish piled up on the streets, ageing buses spontaneously exploded, metro stations shut down for months on end and more graffiti appeared on walls.
In 2018, Raggi was mocked for suggesting using sheep and other animals to tackle overgrown grass in the city’s parks.
While she has been credited for taking on Rome’s Casamonica mafia clan, mending some of the city’s roads and improving the balance books, the final blow to her image for many residents has been the increased sightings of wild boar.
M5S had been hoping that under its newly elected leader, the former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, it would manage to retain Rome.
Elsewhere, the Democratic party incumbent, Giuseppe Sala, is poised to win a second mandate as mayor of Milan, with 54-58% of the vote, ahead of the rightwing candidate on 32-36%.
Matteo Lepore, a Democratic party candidate backed by M5S, is set for a landslide victory in Bologna with over 60% of the vote, and likewise Gaetano Manfredi, also a Democratic party candidate backed by the M5S in Naples.
• This article was amended on 5 October 2021. An earlier version stated that Gaetano Manfredi was “an M5S candidate backed by the Democratic party”, when the reverse is correct.