Italy’s disenchanted southern voters turn against Five Star

Edoardo Eremita, like many young voters in southern Italy, once supported the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, captivated by its promise to tackle poverty and corruption.

Since then he has grown disenchanted with the party. When Italians vote in an election later this month, Eremita will swing to the right, opting for the Brothers of Italy led by firebrand Giorgia Meloni.

“I like the way she speaks — you feel safe with her. She is more credible than other leaders, even at a European level,” said the 28-year-old, who works for the national highway management company. “I’m not a racist or anti-gay. Once in government, she will compromise and not be so extreme.”

Southern Italy — the country’s poorest region, where distrust of mainstream politicians and traditional institutions runs deep — was once an impregnable bastion of support for Five Star. The region, which accounts for around a third of parliament’s seats, voted overwhelmingly for Five Star in 2018. That helped the protest movement win 33 per cent of the national vote, more than any other political party.

Now, however, its support in the south is crumbling. Many erstwhile Five Star voters plan to skip the forthcoming polls while others are shifting right, drawn by Meloni’s charisma and novelty.

Growing southern support — including in sleepy towns such as Caserta, where Eremita lives — is expected to help Meloni’s 10-year-old Brothers of Italy emerge as the largest party in parliament. Its rightwing coalition with Matteo Salvini’s League and tycoon Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is forecast to secure a comfortable majority.

Edoardo Eremita
Edoardo Eremita has grown disenchanted with the policies of the Five Star Movement © Amy Kazmin/FT

The citizens’ income policy — Five Star’s flagship social welfare scheme launched in 2019, which provides a monthly basic income for the jobless — is among the most polarising issues ahead of the vote. Many employers blame the programme, whose average payout this year has been €582 per month, for their difficulties finding willing workers.

Meloni has pledged to abolish the programme if she comes to power. Giuseppe Conte, the law professor now leading Five Star, has vowed to defend it, warning of a “civil war” if it is scrapped.

About 1.5mn Italian households have received citizens’ income payments so far this year — around two-thirds of whom are in the south, according to government data. Meanwhile, employers across Italy, including small business owners, complain of acute labour shortages.

“Instead of creating new jobs for young people, they created a tool for people not to work,” said Giuseppe Arrighi, 67, who runs a small barber shop in Caserta. He voted for Five Star in 2018 and does not plan to vote. “I feel betrayed.”

Employers are not alone in their discontent. Eremita believes that many young recipients of citizens’ income payments work informal jobs for which they receive cash, enabling them to earn more than he does after he pays his taxes.

His cousin, Francesco Gravino, 28, a train driver, is also dismayed at what he believes is widespread abuse of the welfare programme. However, he says he is “torn” over whether to vote for Five Star or Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. “I’m in favour of citizens’ income for people who cannot work, but not for people who can,” Gravino said.

Gimmi Cangiano, a Brothers of Italy parliamentary candidate from the southern Campania region, who hopes to secure a seat in the area currently held by a Five Star member, said he expected many undecided voters to back Meloni. They are likely to be drawn both by her “defence” of their interests and her strong Italian nationalism, he added.

“Many centre-right voters who voted for the Five Star are now returning — it’s a homecoming,” he said. “Meloni has conveyed a lot about the idea of the fatherland. She calls herself a patriot and has tried to give Italians that sense of belonging perhaps lost in recent years.”

However, the threat to eliminate the citizens’ income is mobilising support for Five Star among those who have benefited from the scheme. “Other politicians are egoists, but [Five Star leader] Conte is for the people,” said Angela, 38, a mother of two who asked not to give her last name. She received the €350 citizens’ income payments every month for two years until recently landing a part-time job as a school caretaker.

Elisabetta Petti, a 47-year-old human resources consultant, has tried a broad range of options from Italy’s political menu — from Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia, to Five Star and the centre-left Democratic party. But she is now so disillusioned that she is uncertain whether she will vote at all.

Elisabetta Petti
Elisabetta Petti is undecided on whether she will vote in the election on September 25 © Amy Kazmin/FT

Petti likes Meloni and the prospect of a strong female leader but detests Meloni’s prospective coalition partner, League leader Salvini, who derided the south when he campaigned for northern autonomy.

“She is very combative — women are bigger fighters,” Petti said. “But Salvini in the past said that people from the south stink. It was very offensive.”

Gabriele Quagliero, 78, a retired factory worker who voted for Five Star in 2018, said he was finished with politicians after successive disappointments. He believes many older people like him will abstain in the election.

“I don’t trust anyone anymore,” he said. “I voted for Five Star hoping for something to change. But it didn’t happen.”

He said some weary voters were still tempted to give Meloni a try in a last roll of the electoral dice. “I have a friend who says, ‘Meloni is my last chance’,” Guagliero said. “He is going to vote for her just to see what happens.”

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