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In Southern Italy, Where Populist 5 Star Movement Took Off

In Sunday's stunning national elections, the former leftist stronghold near Naples joined the outsider revolt against the political establishment. What comes next, however, is still not clear.

Leader of Five Star Luigi Di Maio in Pomigliano D'Arco
Leader of Five Star Luigi Di Maio in Pomigliano D'Arco
Maria Corbi

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."

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."

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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