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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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