ROME (AP) — In Italy's general election campaign, Rome's uncollected garbage has become fodder for politicians — and at least one pig.
The capital's dirty streets, lined with brimming-over, nasty-smelling garbage bins, are providing a handy way to trash the performance of Mayor Virginia Raggi, arguably the most high-profile office-holder of the 5-Star Movement. The populist party is leading in opinion polls and chasing its first premiership in the March 4 vote.
The fact that Raggi isn't running in that race hasn't stopped leaders of rival parties from recycling the city's chronic trash problem into a campaign trail issue. So when a pig was seen rooting through a pile of garbage bags along a Rome street earlier this month, rivals gleefully grabbed the opportunity.
Ex-premier Matteo Renzi, whose own Democratic Party has taken quite a drubbing in recent opinion polls, evoked the she-wolf, associated with the legend of ancient Rome's founding. He quipped that "before, there was the wolf, now there's the pig as Rome's symbol to the world."
Right-wing leader Giorgia Meloni, a partner in a conservative electoral alliance with former Premier Silvio Berlusconi posted a photo of the pig on Facebook, its snout poking through mounds of garbage. Her comment: "This is what Rome is."
Miffed, the mayor told reporters at City Hall that municipal police officers had determined that the animal had wandered off from its owner.
Raggi smelled campaigning behind the trash polemics.
"Politics should be about something else," Raggi told reporters at a news conference called to unveil the city's pilot recycling program.
In the days following the pig incident, however, some residents in Rome noted a flurry of cleanup efforts, including street-cleaning trucks and new containers to replace decrepit, stinky recycling bins.
In Raggi's defense, Rome seems to be eternally lurching from one garbage emergency to the next, irrespective of who is in charge. Trash pileups have plagued at least two previous administrations, one left-leaning and the other right-wing.
Citizens have staunchly opposed new dumps or waste-treatment facilities in their neighborhoods. Making matters worse, municipal trash collection agency AMA has been dogged by scandals and hampered by scarce funds to purchase new, modern equipment.
But this latest crisis is particularly bad timing for the 5-Stars. When the election date was announced in late December, trash collectors were overwhelmed by tons of waste from holiday merrymaking. Some streets saw no garbage trucks for days.
Italy's Emilia Romagna region, led by a Democratic Party governor, offered to take tons of garbage off Rome's hands for several weeks following Christmas. 5-Star politicians declared that Rome didn't need such a rescue, and, citing high costs of transporting the garbage far away, the city nixed the offer.
Last fall, Rome also launched a pilot program to encourage more recycling in the Old Ghetto neighborhood, where ancient narrow alleys and claustrophobically close apartment buildings make garbage collection a particular challenge.
AMA president Lorenzo Bagnacani claimed satisfied locals told city officials: "This looks like Switzerland."
As well as the trash issue, Raggi is under investigation in a probe stemming from the appointment of an official in her administration. And she isn't the only 5-Star mayor with problems.
In the northwestern city of Turin, Chiara Appendino, who trounced a Democratic Party incumbent to become mayor in 2016, won rave reviews in her first months. But her star, too, has dulled.
Auditors recently refused to handle Turin's books because of the sorry state of the city's finances, Italian news reports said. Separately, Appendino and other officials were put under investigation in a probe of a panic-triggered stampede of soccer fans in a Turin square.
What's hard to predict is whether the mayors' stumbling will hurt 5-Star candidates for Parliament on March 4.
"The vote for the 5-Star Movement is really a protest vote against the left and the right," political analyst Franco Pavoncello told the AP in an interview. Pavoncello, who is president of John Cabot University in Rome, was skeptical poor mayoral performances would make a difference nationally.
"People don't vote for the 5-Star Movement because they really expect tremendous performance in running cities, but rather because they are rejecting the previous system," he said.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio