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In Southern Italy, A City's Perfect Storm Of Populism

The populist Five-Star Movement and the right-wing League won over half the vote in the struggling mid-sized city of Foggia by promising more jobs and less immigration.

Near Palazzo Dogana in Foggia,  July 2017
Near Palazzo Dogana in Foggia, July 2017
Niccolò Zancan

FOGGIA — In front of the decaying ruins of the once-glorious Ariston theater, three people sleep on cardboard on the sidewalk. The street is lined with shuttered shopfronts and for-sale signs, and the air is filled with wasps and the stench of rotting meat. A drunk man is strewn on the sidewalk in front of what was once a clothing store, and the street's only coffee shop closed years ago.

The neighborhood surrounding the central train station in Foggia, a city of 153,000 in the Puglia region, is a forgotten land. It's five in the afternoon, scorching hot, and there are only three businesses still open: Fashion Bazar, Punjab Kebab, and a discount supermarket that advertises chicken thighs for 1.99 euros a kilo. Seeing it all first-hand helps explain how the League — a northern separatist movement turned national right-wing party — won 9% of the vote in a city where it had until recently been nonexistent, and why the populist Five Star party won by far the most votes with 44%.

It was in cities like Foggia where the alliance between the two anti-establishment parties began to take shape, at ground level, long before Five Star's Luigi Di Maio and the League's Salvini agreed to form a coalition government last month.

"The street around the station used to be our version of Rome"s Via Veneto," says Alfonso Fiore, a League representative on the city council, in reference to the Italian capital's most glamorous address. "It was the city's living room where everyone would come to take a walk, and houses cost up to 4,000 euros per square meter. It was the nicest neighborhood in town."

Those glory days are long gone, and the housing market in Foggia has since collapsed. "Now you can buy a 100-square-meter house for just 80,000 euros," he says. Fiore, who hails from a family with a long history of right-wing political affiliation, lays the blame on the arrival of migrants and asylum-seekers to the area. "I was one of the first three League representatives elected in this city, and the League will put Italians first. We're expecting a lot from this government."

Italy's breadbasket

The agricultural land surrounding Foggia was once known as the breadbasket of Italy. The city now ranks as one of the three hardest places to find a job in the country, with 40% unemployment.

To make matters worse, Foggia is home to the Sacra Corona Unita, one of Italy's least prominent mafia organizations but also one of the bloodiest. In the first quarter of 2018, the police reported 2,829 thefts, 88 robberies, and 36 extortion cases, while violent feuds between opposing clans have led to a string of killings and bombings in the area.

Local politicians have proved unable to respond. Not a single euro has been spent from a 637 million-euro fund provided by the Pact for Apulia, an investment package negotiated in 2016 by then-prime minister Matteo Renzi and Michele Emiliano, president of the Apulia region. The money was earmarked for investments in new roads, hospitals and railways, but progress stalled and the funds could now be lost.

"Nothing has changed. It's mortifying," says Fabio Porreco, president of the Foggia Chamber of Commerce. "We're a peripheral territory. We have a ruling class that has never managed to assert itself. And we risk falling into resignation."

The Ferrovia neighborhood around the train station has come to symbolize these failures. With the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers, many locals have found an easy scapegoat for the problems befalling the city.

"I don't like seeing so many foreigners," says Dino Cotoia, 49, an unemployed laborer who lives with his 80-year-old father. "My father receives a 560-euro pension and I get by foraging in the woods for asparagus and oregano. In this situation we can't think about helping others. We must think of Italians first."

The city now ranks as one of the three hardest places to find a job in the country.

Cotoia's views find a perfect home in the new coalition government. "It's our time now. I want a minimum guaranteed income and fewer foreigners," he says. "I voted for Five Star and I agree with Salvini. They are a perfect match. Now they have to change Italy."

Despite the enthusiasm of voters like Cotoia, the local branches of the two parties have a difficult relationship. In the Foggia city council, the League is part of a center-right government headed by Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, while Five Star and the center-left Democratic Party make up the opposition.

"We won't change our politics here. The League representatives in Foggia are members of other parties who jumped on the bandwagon," says Rosa Barone, a local Five Star leader. "It's wrong to blame migrants, and I happily go to the gym in the Ferrovia neighborhood every morning."

Barone believes there are more important priorities at hand in Foggia. "We need to open an anti-mafia district office and reopen the airport to serve the 2 million tourists who flock to the Gargano peninsula," she says.

After the end of their workday, the migrant workers take old buses along provincial roads to return to the informal camps where they live in the towns of San Severo and Borgo Mezzanone. They are paid just 3 euros an hour to pick tomatoes in the breadbasket of Italy, where locals are unemployed but have no desire to work in the fields.

"There are too many of them. Can't you see?" says Ester Barberis, an 18-year-old who dreams of joining the police. "Salvini is right, Italians first. I hope this government won't leave us on the street as well."

Spending time in Foggia provides a perfect summary of Italy's prevailing political climate. And it may be that Giuseppe Conte, the new prime minister handpicked by Di Maio and Salvini, will particularly attuned to that sentiment. After all, he was born just 40 kilometers away, in the small town of Volturara Appula in the Dauni mountains.

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