POMIGLIANO D'ARCO — This gritty town north of the Mount Vesuvius volcano is home to several automobile factories on the outskirts of the southern city of Naples. In Italy's parliamentary elections last Sunday, the people of Pomigliano d'Arco stood firmly behind Luigi Di Maio, the young leader of the Five Star Movement, giving him over 60% of the vote.
Pomigliano was but one dot in a sea of yellow, the color of a Five Star Movement that swept the surrounding region of Campania and the entire south, winning a third of the votes nationwide and the mantle of Italy's most popular party.
Locals are clear about the message their vote sent to the "old politicians" of Italy's mainstream parties. In only 10 years of existence, Five Star has drawn a vast majority of voters in a town that was once a stronghold of the Italian left. Unlike its rivals, which depended on aging local politicians to turn out their base, Five Star was able to bring young Italians into the fold — a crucial strategy in towns like Pomigliano.
There are many factors behind 5 Star's unprecedented success, but the party was also able to exceed its pre-election polling numbers by turning out large numbers of voters in traditionally more apathetic regions like Campania. Voters in Pomigliano rattle off a list of reasons why they once stayed home instead of voting, including persistently high youth unemployment and a political class that closely guards its own benefits but refuses to expand social spending for citizens.
"Promises should be kept," says Paolo Indolfi, a factory worker. "But the promises that politicians made to us to get our votes never materialized."
Five Star seized on unpopular labor reforms implemented by the outgoing center-left government as well as concerns that have long bubbled under the surface here. The old system of clientelismo, or patronage politics, that characterized the central government's relationship with southern Italy in the postwar period collapsed in the 1990s, and no mainstream party had managed to address it since — until 5 Star, which has vowed to adopt a minimum guaranteed income for all Italians. Elsewhere in Campania, locals are still angry about the lack of a government response to the deteriorating Bagnoli neighborhood in Naples and the ongoing health crisis due to illegal trash burning in the so-called "land of fire."
But it wasn't just the leftist establishment that lost supporters. Luigi Davino, who runs a dairy farm in the nearby town of Somma Vesuviana, said he used to vote for former conservative Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. "But he just talked a lot and made a lot of promises but he never did much for us, so why should I keep believing in him?" says Davino. "The candidates from 5 Star are good guys who live and work here, it's right to give them a chance to run the country."
Five Star has vowed to adopt a minimum guaranteed income for all Italians — Photo: Danilo Balducci/ZUMA
Many Five Star voters tell personal stories of government inaction that spurred them to vote for Di Maio, who grew up in nearby Avellino. Ciro De Falco is a former Carabinieri policeman who was stationed in the town of Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi during the devastating 1980 Irpinia earthquake, which killed at least 2,400 people, including De Falco's 14-year-old daughter. He only received the equivalent of 4,130 euros ($5,120) from the Italian government as compensation for the loss of his daughter and his home.
I just didn't trust anyone anymore.
"Meanwhile, managers at banks that ruined the savings of thousands of Italians receive million-dollar bonuses," says an 80-year-old man standing next to De Falco.
At Di Maio's campaign headquarters, De Falco says he hadn't voted in years before casting his ballot for Five Star. "I didn't trust anyone anymore, but these kids fill me with new enthusiasm."
The next to arrive at the office is Valeria Ciarambino, a Five Star regional representative who ran the party's successful campaign in Campania. A close confidant of Di Maio, and a rising star within the movement, she has no doubts when asked about the roots of the left-wing Democratic Party's demise in the region: sitting governor Vincenzo De Luca.
"He personalized the campaign, imposing his son as a candidate and using his position as a campaign tool," says Ciarambino. "Voters responded by razing his party to the ground."
Lucia, a primary school teacher in the Naples neighborhood of Castelnuovo, said Five Star gave fresh hope to people used to accepting hopelessness. But, she adds, "now they need to keep their promises."
Ultimately, the real root of most problems here is the lack of jobs for young and old alike. "The biggest emergency here is unemployment," says Lucia. "Our children must be able to stay and work here instead of leaving, because this wonderful, sunny land is also theirs."
See more from World Affairs here