Giorgia Meloni makes the victory sign as he meets reporters in Rome's Pantheon Square, March 16, 2016.
Giorgia Meloni makes the victory sign as he meets reporters in Rome's Pantheon Square, March 16, 2016.

ROME - A pregnant Italian politician announced her candidacy Wednesday to become Rome's next mayor, infusing the race for the Eternal City with a feminist edge after both her prime challenger and her one-time mentor said she should stay home and be a “mamma.''

The candidacy of Giorgia Meloni, a former protege of Silvio Berlusconi, is the latest twist in the sordid saga of Rome's city hall, after the previous mayor was forced out in an expense account scandal and the mayor before him was implicated in a huge corruption investigation.

In recent days, as Meloni hesitated over whether to run, both Berlusconi and his candidate for Rome mayor, Guido Bertolaso, said she should concentrate on being a mother and not join the taxing race. Their comments enraged other female politicians and prompted rounds of headlines and talk shows about sexism in Italy.

In a chaotic campaign announcement outside Rome's iconic Pantheon, Meloni said she would have preferred to have enjoyed her pregnancy without the stress and exhaustion of a political campaign. But she recalled that the symbol of Rome itself is a she-wolf nursing twins, and said mothers must be free to decide whether to work or not.

Giorgia Meloni, bottom right, arrives in Rome's Pa
Giorgia Meloni, bottom right, arrives in Rome's Pantheon Square to meet reporters March 16, 2016. The pregnant politician has announced her candidacy for Rome's mayor.

“What I strongly believe is that no man can tell a woman what she can and cannot do during her pregnancy,'' Meloni said.

Meloni had headed Berlusconi's youth movement until she was tapped in 2008 to be his minister for youth, becoming the youngest cabinet minister in Italy's history. But she eventually split from his party to join another center-right group.

Her candidacy is thus splitting the center right even more. For weeks, anti-immigrant Northern League leader Matteo Salvini had courted her and urged her to run — even though Berlusconi had already thrown his support behind Bertolaso. Berlusconi and Salvini have had an on-again, off-again political courtship ahead of administrative elections, and the Meloni candidacy now throws any alliance into doubt.

Meloni sought to rally both behind her, urging Berlusconi and Salvini to help her prevent Rome from falling to the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

“I'm here to unite, not divide,'' she said. “But above all, I'm here to win.''

She added that she was confident Romans would understand that she wouldn't be able to hit the campaign trail too hard, saying there may be times “when I'm too tired to go to one more event.''