In Italy’s poorer south, populist party woos angry voters

In the Naples suburb of Torre del Greco, a port town at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, voters are steaming.

Local seamen have jobs lost to foreigners willing to work for lower pay. The town is without a mayor, who was arrested months ago in a kickback scandal. Some 13,000 small investors lost their savings in the bankruptcy of a shipping company.

Those woes only aggravate the daily difficulties of life in Italy’s underdeveloped south, where youth unemployment runs 50 percent or higher, and the jobless rate among all ages is nearly double that in the relatively affluent north. It’s also an area long influenced by organized crime syndicates, where prosecutors say votes have been exchanged for guarantees of lucrative public work contracts.

Whichever party can convert voters’ palpable anger in the south into support in Italy’s March 4 election could very well determine who governs Italy. A few dozen southern races, including in the Campania region embracing Naples, are critical.

The maverick 5-Star Movement, a populist phenomenon that bills itself as the antidote to establishment politics, appears positioned to benefit from citizen outrage as it aims to enter Italy’s national government for the first time.

“The South is a crucial area, an area in which negative emotions play a very relevant role, and it’s where these negative emotions can lead to the 5-Stars,” said Giovanni Orsina, a political expert at Rome’s LUISS university.

Analysts predict the March 4 vote will produce three blocs: the 5-Star Movement, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s alliance of centrist and right-wing groups and a center-left group led by former Premier Matteo Renzi.

Vincenzo Accardo, the head of Torre del Greco’s seamen’s group, angrily told a rally last week that he had asked all the main parties to come to this town and learn about its problems. All but one didn’t bother to reply.

But he joyously presented the only candidate for premier who did — 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio.

“This is a land that not only has great traditions, it unfortunately has a high level of youth unemployment,” said Di Maio, pledging to promote lasting jobs for young people.

In a sign of how crucial the southern voters are, the 5-Star Movement founder, comic Beppe Grillo, also came, making his only campaign appearance so far in support of Di Maio.

“Beppe! Beppe!” the crowd chanted.

In opinion polls, the 5-Stars consistently rank as the most popular choice of those saying they’ll vote. But they also appear far short of clinching the absolute majority needed to form a government. And because they have rejected any postelection deal to join a coalition government, they risk not getting into power.

Still, the 5-Stars could play the spoiler, siphoning off support in key races from what pollsters say is the only electoral group that could get a majority — Berlusconi’s conservatives and far-right allies.

Gelsomina Assante, who came to the rally from nearby San Giorgio a Cremano, said she’d vote for the 5-Star Movement “for their honesty” and hoped others would too.

“If not, I’ve told my husband we can leave Italy,” she declared.

Recent developments have questioned that 5-Star “honesty.” Seeking to distance themselves from establishment politicians, 5-Star lawmakers pledged to turn over half their salaries along with unspent expense accounts to a fund that provides modest loans to small businesses and the self-employed. A TV expose found that several lawmakers had kept the money instead.

Supporters view the 5-Stars as a long-awaited opportunity to break with Italy’s established parties, like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, which has done well previously in the south but which they say failed to help the region develop.

“The question is, why not vote the 5-Star Movement?” asked voter Giuseppe Apicella, who clutched a Movement flag.

For decades in the south, politics consisted of doling out development aid and, prosecutors say, doling out public contracts to crime syndicates in exchange for votes. But those ways may be changing, according to Orsina.

Amid Italy’s tepid economic recovery, it’s “very difficult for politicians to ask for votes because they don’t have the resources” to deliver on promises, Orsina told The Associated Press.

Judging by the crowd at Di Maio’s rally in his hometown of Pomigliano d’Arco, a factory town on the outskirts of Naples, 5-Stars certainly appeal to young professionals. But what about the have-nots?

With its crumbling balconies, broken windows, uncollected garbage and dim corridors where drug dealers do business, the public housing project in Naples’ Scampia neighborhood has served as a backdrop for the hit movie and TV series “Gomorrah.” Di Maio stopped in Scampia, visiting a judo school that takes the Camorra’s future young recruits off the streets.

This gym “did more than the politicians did” for Scampia, said Di Maio, a 31-year-old former web designer who was raised in the Naples area.

In a Scampia coffee bar, the verdict was mixed about who deserved their votes.

Giovanna Cardeopoli, 49 and jobless, said she would vote again for Berlusconi’s party “because he gets things done.” But one of her teenage daughters has left Naples for Rome, hoping to find work.

Owner Salvatore Varriale, working the espresso machine, differed.

“Berlusconi by now has given what he had to give,” he said. He believed the 5-Stars “think about the future of us young people.”

There’s one bloc of voters that surpasses the 5-Stars in opinion polls: Italians who are undecided or say they won’t vote at all. They total some 33 percent of those polled.

Lorenzo Liparulo held a banner with other Scampia residents outside Di Maio’s judo stop, proclaiming themselves the “Organized Unemployed.”

“Honestly, I don’t trust anyone anymore,” Liparulo said. “I say that from my heart. Because after so many years, and after so many promises, no one has maintained any of them, no matter what party.”

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