Sitting on a bench outside a butcher’s shop in Bagnoli, a gritty Naples suburb, Emanuele Fusco can only speak scathingly of Matteo Renzi and his referendum to change Italy’s constitution that will be put to a vote on December 4.
The 25-year-old barman says the prime minister’s government has been no different to those previously that failed to regenerate the area after the demise of the steel plant that once dominated the local economy. On the plebiscite, he predicts Bagnoli’s working-class voters — both on the left, such as himself, and on the right — will hand Mr Renzi a stinging defeat.
“A Yes vote is just a way to fool people,” Mr Fusco says angrily. “We should send this government packing and let everyone know how much they’ve screwed us.”
Such a level of resentment is probably natural in one of the most struggling corners of the eurozone’s third-largest economy. It points to one of the biggest challenges facing Mr Renzi in his battle to win a referendum that, if unsuccessful, could bring a premature end to his term in office.
The impoverished south, or Mezzogiorno, is the weakest geographical link in his campaign, amid broad scepticism that the 41-year-old former Florence mayor has correctly identified the answer to Italy’s problems.
Martina Riccio, a 32-year-old market researcher from Bagnoli chatting with a friend, is dismissive, saying: “I would change some things about the constitution but I wouldn’t have it touched by those in power now.”
She adds: “Many people are voting No because they are against Renzi, without even knowing what this entails.”
Luca Comodo, director at pollster Ipsos, says a view has taken hold across Italy that a rejection of Mr Renzi’s plan is a vote for change. This is particularly true in the Mezzogiorno because of the disproportionate economic damage inflicted by the deep recession that followed the global financial crisis. “The south is where protest and rage are amplified,” he explains.
According to a Demos poll published on Friday, Mr Renzi’s reforms will be rejected by an 11 percentage point margin in the south, compared with a seven-point margin nationally.
Mr Renzi’s response has been to ramp up efforts to win over southern voters, including recent campaign visits to Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia and Campania, the region that includes Naples. He has proposed tax breaks for companies that create jobs in the south to respond to the twin problems of lack of investment and high unemployment, especially among the young.
Plans were stepped up for regional infrastructure projects, such as upgrading the Salerno to Reggio Calabria motorway and reviving controversial proposals to build a bridge connecting Sicily to the Italian mainland. The prime minister has also chosen the Sicilian resort of Taormina to host next year’s G7 summit and persuaded Apple, the technology group, to open a training academy in Naples to teach coding to 200 pupils.
But critics say he still has little chance of success. “There’s suffering here and everyone can see it. People in the south vote with their gut,” says Armando Cesaro, head of the Naples office of Forza Italia, the centre-right party led by Silvio Berlusconi, who is urging a No vote.
Venanzio Carpentieri, leader of Mr Renzi’s Democratic party (PD) in the Naples area, insists support for the referendum is building, not waning. He says constitutional reform should be seen as an “extraordinary opportunity” for the Mezzogiorno because it will reduce the powers of the Senate in Rome and of Italy’s regional governments — freeing up Italy’s gridlocked political system.
A Yes vote is just a way to fool people. We should send this government packing and let everyone know how much they’ve screwed us
“Even more than the rest of Italy, the south needs to move on a path to modernisation,” Mr Carpentieri says. “The idea that the southern vote would be for the status quo is a perspective that would be frankly disappointing.”
Salvatore Sarnataro, a 75-year-old butcher in Bagnoli, would agree. He is backing Mr Renzi’s reform for a simple reason: the current system has failed spectacularly. “Are we doing well now, with all these laws, this bureaucracy? I say no, so I will vote Yes,” he says.
But voting patterns in parts of the Mezzogiorno can be unpredictable, dictated by opaque networks in which local officials — sometimes with links to organised crime — have a big sway over certain voters by promising them a personal gain in exchange for their support.
Another of Mr Renzi’s problems in Naples is that he is facing opposition from Luigi de Magistris, the recently re-elected city mayor who has clashed with the prime minister on a number of fronts, including the clean-up and repurposing of Bagnoli’s steel works.
After Mr Renzi decided the central government should run the project, Mr de Magistris attacked him for undermining local authorities, and many in the region sided with the mayor, in a sign that local people are sceptical of recentralisation.
However, Mr Renzi does have one trump card in Vincenzo De Luca the Campania governor and an old-fashioned ruthless vote-getter. “Offer them fried fish, take them on boats, take them on yachts, do however you want, but don’t come here with any fewer voters than what you promised,” he joked recently with a group of Democratic party mayors, in a closed-door meeting that was recorded and published by Il Fatto Quotidiano.
Mr Sarnataro, of course, needs no arm-twisting. “I’ve seen the Fascists, the monarchy, democracy, the centre-right and the centre-left, and I’m still a butcher,” he jokes. “The constitution is not the Bible”.