Anti-establishment movements that have won growing support across Europe are on the brink of a significant breakthrough on Sunday (19 June) when Virginia Raggi, an idealistic but politically inexperienced activist, is favourite to win the decisive second round of municipal elections and become the first woman to serve as mayor of Rome.

With promises to fight rampant corruption, clean up rubbish-strewn streets and restore reliable public transport, the 37-year-old lawyer has become the most visible face of the Five Star Movement founded by the irreverent Italian comedian Beppe Grillo.

She emerged from the first round of the election in June as the clear front runner, taking 35% of the vote. Her chief rival, Roberto Giachetti, from the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which heads Italy's coalition government, trailed by 11 points.

After her initial victory – which Giachetti's supporters insist can still be overturned on Sunday – Raggi, a councillor for only three years, told supporters: "The wind is changing, this is the moment. We are facing a historic moment. The Romans are ready to turn a page and I am ready to govern this city and restore Rome to the splendour and beauty it deserves."

And as her second-round campaign entered its final phase this week, she tweeted: "I want to change this city and to do that, you have to start with a culture of legality." This was a clear reference to the so-called Mafia Capitale, a huge scandal over public funds misappropriated by criminals and corrupt officials. Rome's last mayor, the PD's Ignazio Marino, claimed credit for exposing the corruption but was forced to resign last October in a row over restaurant bills settled using his official credit card.

Anti-establishment politics

Distancing itself from the parties and philosophies of both the traditional left and right, Five Star shares no real common ground with the far-right groups that have made electoral advances in the neighbouring countries of France, Austria and Germany. In Britain, opponents of Ukip draw direct comparisons with those groups, but these are rejected by Ukip and all these parties react angrily to attempts to portray them as Nazis, neo-Nazis or fascists.

Yet Five Star owes its extraordinary rise to the same groundswell of discontent that has damaged the authority and appeal of a failed political mainstream. Throughout Europe, voters demoralised by austerity, unemployment, insecurity and the effects of mass immigration have turned to more radical alternatives from the left, the right and unaligned activism.

Virginia Raggi
Virginia Raggi is the Five Star Movement candidate for Mayor of RomeReuters

"There is certainly a general anti-establishment movement but it works in very different ways and can also depend very largely on national and local conditions and issues," said Professor Ruth Wodak, a specialist on European politics. "It is important, while acknowledging the similarities, to recognise the different factors that can cause disenchantment with the establishment and the elite."

Prof Wodak holds academic posts in Vienna and Lancaster and is a Schuman fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, where her research focuses on developments in immigration and security policies "and their influences on the emerging radical right wing populist rhetoric" following the post-2008 economic crisis and in the absence of "European solidarity".

She told IBTimes UK that while anti-immigration sentiments were key to the increased popularity of the FN and its Austrian, German and British counterparts, "local phenomena" explained the successes of grassroots campaigners as in Rome. "Five Star is neither left nor right in the old sense. It is anti-elitist, anti 'the banks', for example, but it's not xenophobic."

France, Austria and Germany lean to the right

In France, the Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen is believed by many political observers to be a near-certain contender in the second round of next year's presidential elections. The FN has shrugged off stubborn suspicion of fascist tendencies to overtake the ruling but troubled Parti Socialiste and the Gaullist centre-right, Les Republicains, in opinion polls, having exploited voters' concerns about the economy, immigration and what Le Pen calls the "Islamicisation" of France. "It's not Islam that is the problem nor its practice, but its visibility," she says.

Le Pen
Front National leader Marine Le Pen during a visit to Moscow in 2015, where she met senior officials from Putin's United Russia partyGetty

Despite her own strident views, Le Pen has made it her personal crusade to "de-demonise" the party in the eyes of the electorate, to the extent of driving her own father, Jean-Marie, out of the movement he created. But the media and even many supporters still routinely describe the FN as "the extreme right".

Jean-Marie Len Pen reached the second round of the 2002 presidential election only to be crushed by the centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac, whose vote was boosted by socialists determined to keep the FN out of the Elysee.

Given the deep unpopularity of the current socialist president, Francois Hollande, and doubts on whether Les Republicains can produce an electable contender from a dozen hopefuls, Marine Le Pen would expect to improve significantly on the humiliating 18% share of the vote for her father 14 years ago – and could even win.

The recent example of Austria has already shown the ability of the far-right to rise above the contempt in which it is held by traditional parties.

In May's presidential election, Norbert Hofer, leader of the Freedom party (FPO), a group founded in the 1950s by a former Austrian Nazi, was within 31,000 votes of snatching a historic victory.

Austria
The defeated Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer (L) and Federal President Heinz Fischer shake hands during a post-election meeting at the presidential offices in ViennaHelmut Fohringer/ AFP

Concerns about Islam, fuelled by actual or foiled terrorist attacks, but also by the huge tide of migrants, the majority being Muslim, have also helped Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party reach a record level of public support, 15% in a recent poll conducted after it published an anti-Islam manifesto.

Echoes of European disillusionment with conventional political leaders can also be detected as the United States presidential election draws near. Senator Bernie Sanders, far to the left of the Democrat establishment, has run Hillary Clinton close for the party's nomination while the presumptive Republican contender, Donald Trump, has rallied a sizeable following among disgruntled Americans by seeming so unlike the old guard.

Ada Colau
Ada Colau is Barcelona's first-ever female mayorGetty Images

Five Star Movement rejects the left-right divide

Social campaigners such as Raggi would be horrified to be discussed in the same context as the controversial Trump or the extreme right. The Five Star Movement, with its emphasis on environmental issues and fighting graft, says it is not even a party and cannot be defined in the context of the historic left-right divide.

If Raggi wins Sunday's run-off, her success would mirror that of Ada Colau, voted mayor of Barcelona a year ago after cutting her political teeth on civil disobedience protests against war, globalisation and the eviction of families for mortgage or rental default.

Colau is now spokesperson for the nominally leaderless Barcelona en Comu (Catalan for Barcelona in Common) and has pledged to run the city on the principle of "governing by obeying the people", though her scope for imposing real change has so far been limited by the group's minority status on the city council.

While it is not yet clear to what extent anti-establishment and radical or extremist groups can rise to serious political power, Hofer's near-triumph in Austria and the possibility of Raggi following Colau as mayor of a major European city show their potential should not be dismissed.

Virginia Raggi
Social campaigners such as Raggi would be horrified to be discussed in the same context as the controversial Trump or the extreme rightAFP

Electorate seek politicians that represent them

Few parts of Europe are unaffected. Greece's neo-fascist Golden Dawn won a parliamentary presence for the first time during the 2012 financial crisis. And the growing appeal of the far right is evident in several other countries, including Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands.

Conversely, towards the opposite end of the political spectrum, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain's Labour opposition was hailed as a victory for the left.

Anton Shekhovtsov, a visiting fellow at Vienna's Institute for Human Sciences and an expert on Europe's far right, says mainstream politicians and parties should be worried that they have become distant from electors. "Voters see them as an internationalist, multiculturalist elite who overlook the problems that actually need to be tackled. And they turn to politicians who seem to talk to them."


Colin Randall spent 29 years at The Daily Telegraph as reporter, chief reporter, executive news editor and Paris bureau chief, was executive editor for the launch of The National (UAE) in 2008, and now freelances and edits websites from London and the south of France. He tweets from @salutsunderland