Why you should care

Because Italy heads to the polls next month in a finely balanced election that could have profound consequences for the EU.

On a pier overlooking the Ionian Sea in Calabria, the tip of Italy’s boot, Massimiliano Mano describes what he is up against — and why he is supporting the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in next month’s election.

The 47-year-old earns about 12,000 euros ($14,900) from the two months a year when his restaurant is open. One of his other jobs these days to support a wife and three children is to organize parties at bars and nightclubs — but barely anyone shows up. “People don’t want to pay 5 euros for a drink,” he says. “You can’t even offer them free entry.”

Mano’s politics used to lean to the left. But like many other frustrated, discouraged Italians in the country’s economically struggling southern regions, his hopes now lie elsewhere. “Politics was always an illusion; it tricked us,” he says. “I hope Five Star will give this land a shake.”

The state doesn’t work. It doesn’t help the needy; it is completely absent. That’s why we need change.

Mara Conga, Crotone resident

Mano is from Crotone, an ancient Greek colony where Pythagoras set up a school 2,500 years ago. Now it is the cradle of Italian unemployment. The jobless rate here was 28 percent in 2016, making it the laggard of laggards in the much-vaunted eurozone recovery.

Politically, Calabria and the rest of Italy’s south — known as the Mezzogiorno — is unpredictable terrain. The votes here could swing the March 4 election, a contest that might have profound consequences for the EU, particularly if it plunges the country into political instability or delivers a populist-led government.

At the moment the center-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and former prime minister, leads with the support of about 36 percent of Italians. Its main bastion of support is the prosperous north, owing to its alliance with the anti-euro, anti-immigrant Northern League.

But if this coalition is to gain an absolute majority, it will have to sweep the south, which has emerged in recent years as a hotbed of support for Five Star. An analysis of voting districts by Salvatore Vassallo, a professor at the University of Bologna, published in La Repubblica on Thursday, said the election race in Sicily, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria was “wide open” — and Crotone specifically was a “toss-up.”

“It will come down to the last vote. I would be willing to bet on that,” says Ugo Pugliese, the mayor of Crotone, who ran as an independent and is not campaigning for any side. “It will be a big battleground.”

The pro-EU, reformist, center-left Democratic Party, which leads Italy’s government, is also in charge in Calabria. But it is under pressure. Marco Minniti, the interior minister and the highest-profile Calabrian politician, is not campaigning heavily in the region. He has instead been dispatched to defend an electoral stronghold in central Italy.

Antonio Costabile, a professor of political sociology at the University of Calabria, says being in office used to be a big advantage for politicians in the south. The economy depended heavily on public spending and parties benefited from their powers of patronage.

Today’s tighter budgets have eroded the advantages of being a “political godfather,” Costabile says. “Now there’s just a lot of discontent. We are not expecting a good result for the PD.”

Some of Crotone’s 60,000 people recall its prosperity, which was driven mainly by the steel industry. “There were thousands of workers; there were flourishing fisheries and agriculture,” says Giovanni Cimini, owner of a restaurant. “Then the factories disappeared.”

As the city slid into depression, connections to the rest of Italy withered. Recently, the local airport closed, ending the few daily low-cost flights that were a lifeline for tourism. The train station is also shut. Heavy traffic clogs the two-lane road along the coast and is notoriously dangerous.

Those who can, especially the young, emigrate. “We are reliving the 1960s, when people would move north to find work,” says the Rev. Rino Le Pera, a priest who runs a Catholic charity in the city. “But at that time, people would go to build something and return. Now they leave, never to come back.”

Such discontent is most likely to benefit Five Star, which rails against the political class and has proposed income support for the poorest families to mitigate the region’s economic failure.

“Everything that is not Five Star is thievery. There is zero confidence in the political class,” says Mara Conga, 45, who works at a rental car office on the seafront. “The state doesn’t work. It doesn’t help the needy; it is completely absent. That’s why we need change.”

Disgust with the political establishment will only have deepened this month after 169 people — including the president of Crotone province — were arrested for association with the ’Ndrangheta, the region’s ruthless Mafia. Another string of arrests last year was related to corruption at a large government-funded migrant center close to Crotone.

But Berlusconi’s center-right remains a powerful contender. His coalition narrowly won Sicily’s regional election in November, seen as a precursor to the national vote.

Pugliese, the mayor, says that while Five Star is winning over the former working class, the center-right is likely to prevail among the discontented middle class.

He tries to be optimistic, saying a cleanup of old industrial sites and a focus on cultural tourism related to Crotone’s storied past could bring back jobs. But many of his citizens are losing hope.

“Italy is what it is — and things are bad. Calabria is in last place in Italy, and Crotone is in last place in Calabria, so we’re really on the ropes,” says Mano. As for Europe? “It’s so distant from us, it’s not even an issue. We don’t even feel like we’re in Italy.”

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By James Politi

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