POMIGLIANO D’ARCO, Italy (Reuters) - In a baroque church in Pomigliano d’Arco at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, a cluster of struggling Italians receiving food and other hand-outs from the local priest have no doubt who to back in the March 4 parliamentary election.
The poor, as well as the priest and his team of volunteers, say they will vote for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, the only party they believe offers hope of renewal for one of Europe’s most economically deprived regions.
“There is no work here and the other parties have abandoned us,” says 58-year-old Domenico Ilardi, who was recently laid off from his administrative job at an aeronautics company.
Opinion polls give 5-Star about 28 percent of the vote making it Italy’s leading party. Its ratings are far higher in southern towns such as Pomigliano, where a Fiat car plant has shed about 14,000 of the 18,000 workers it had in its 1980s heyday and unemployment is twice the national average.
Nevertheless, because Italy’s voting system favours pre-election alliances rejected by 5-Star, it has little chance of governing on its own and lags the conservative coalition of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
A new electoral law, approved by parliament in October despite 5-Star’s opposition, allows parties to form alliances before the election to maximise their total votes, even if they have no common programme or common leader.
To win a working majority in parliament, pollsters say Berlusconi’s four-party centre-right bloc which dominates in the north, must defeat 5-Star in dozens of southern marginal seats, of which Pomigliano, near Naples, is a prime example.
Best known for the Fiat factory and a scandal involving toxic industrial waste buried in its surrounding countryside by the local mafia, Pomigliano is a maze of nondescript streets with no green spaces and narrow pavements.
It is also the home town of 5-Star’s leader Luigi Di Maio, who faces a tough challenge there from centre-right rival Vittorio Sgarbi, a celebrity art critic known for his foul-mouthed tirades on television talk shows.
Sgarbi has called the 31-year-old Di Maio an ignorant goat and a cockroach, among other less flattering things.
5-Star has been written off many times since it took 25 percent of the vote at its first election in 2013. Yet despite internal divisions, policy U-turns and legal investigations in the handful of cities it runs, its support has held up and continued to rise. Analysts say this is largely because voters still see it as less crooked and self-serving than its rivals.
In Pomigliano, the church’s 76-year-old priest Giuseppe Gambardella, known to everyone as Don Peppino, helps about 800 of the town’s poorest pay bills and buy medicines.
Gambardella talks affectionately about Di Maio, who attended his church as a boy, and he says 5-Star, formed nine years ago by comedian Beppe Grillo, is “the only party that offers hope of a new way of doing things”.
The priest says the poor he helps in Pomigliano have seen nothing of Italy’s modest economic recovery over the last four years.
“Poverty has risen dramatically, there are people who cannot pay their bills who ask us for candles to light their houses, like in wartime,” he says.
The 5-Star party’s strong anti-corruption message and its promise of universal income support for the poor strike a chord among millions in southern Italy, where political graft and organised crime are endemic, and work is scarce.
The anger the party feeds off is strongest in the south. A poll published last week by the Demetra agency, showed 5-Star winning 38 percent of the vote in southern regions, twice as much as any other party.
The maverick movement was ahead of the centre-right coalition in most southern areas, while the ruling Democratic Party, blamed by many in the south for failing to improve their plight, risks being all but wiped out everywhere south of Rome.
Pomigliano’s 78-year-old mayor, Lello Russo, a veteran centre-right politician with a strong local following, has no time for Di Maio or his party.
Speaking in the study of his home, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves of books and documents, Lello said 5-Star had no political culture and described Di Maio as a clever opportunist.
“If people here vote with their hearts they will vote for Di Maio, because he is from Pomigliano, but if they use their heads they should vote for the centre-right,” he said.
A former surgeon, Lello said he used to work in the hospital where Di Maio was born and joked: “If I had known what we were in for, maybe I could have intervened in some way.”
However, he also regretted the centre-right’s choice of candidate, saying Sgarbi, from northern Italy, had alienated locals with his vulgar insults.
“I was beside him on the stage when he called Di Maio a ‘fried fart’ and it made me shudder,” he said.
In Italy’s south, turnout at elections is always lower than in the rest of the country, so 5-Star must overcome not only its centre-right opponents but also the region’s notorious apathy and cynicism towards politicians in general.
Nicola Coppola, the 76-year-old owner of a ramshackle motorbike and bicycle shop in Pomigliano, typified the approach of many in the south when asked who he would vote for.
“I will decide at the last moment. If I need a favour I will go to the right person and see who can help me out,” he said.
Editing by David Clarke