Late on Monday, Berlusconi's party secretary said Nicola Cosentino (pictured here), a former junior economy minister whose power base is in the heartland of the Camorra or Naples mafia, would not return to parliament after the election. (CIRO DE LUCA/REUTERS)

NAPLES — Pasquale Guerra, a pensioner joining his friends for a game of cards in a Catholic workers’ club in Naples, is quite clear what he would like to happen to Italy’s politicians as they campaign ahead of elections next month.

“They should be shot, all of them,” he declares. “How did they all get so rich? It’s a disgrace.” Then he adds for good measure: “And the trade union leaders. Shoot them too.”

Outside the club in the narrow lanes of the city’s run-down Spanish quarter, infamous for its Camorra Mafia clans, sits Roberto at a table near a tripe vendor displaying coils of gleaming intestines. Roberto is plying his trade as cigarette smuggler.

“I am not going to vote,” he says. “The welfare system is not working, public transport is a mess. People don’t have food on the table. Nothing functions.”

For Roberto, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has built a mountain of empty promises, while his successor, Mario Monti, may have “stopped Italy going into the abyss like Greece, but he hasn’t saved the country.”

Many Neapolitans would agree. The level of anger and despair in Italy’s third-largest city is palpable. And as the regional capital of populous Campania — where youth unemployment is running close to 50 percent — Naples is a key prize in the vote on Feb. 24 and 25.

Polls show the result is too close to call. But if Berlusconi’s center-right coalition can win Campania and just one other large region, then under Italy’s convoluted electoral system he will succeed in denying his center-left opponents a majority in the upper house of parliament. The result could be deadlock.

Winning over a sea of disaffected voters is the key in Italy’s poorer south, and Naples has produced surprises before.

In local elections in 2011, Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party had high hopes of taking city hall from the center-left. But in the end it was an outsider, Luigi de Magistris, a former prosecutor well known for investigating the nexus of politics and organized crime, who prevailed by capturing the protest vote. Handicapped by the city’s debts and deepening recession, the new mayor’s honeymoon appears to have been short-lived, however.

Hoping to capitalize on Naples’s constant malaise is the new joker in the pack of Italy’s bewildering array of politicians running for office.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement emerged as the biggest single party in Sicily’s regional elections last October — held after the local governor was forced to resign in a Mafia-related investigation — and its leader, Beppe Grillo, an outspoken maverick comedian and activist, intends to repeat that success in Naples.

One of the few politicians daring to show his face in the piazza rather than lecturing from the comfort of television talk shows, Grillo took his nationwide “tsunami tour” to Naples last week, rallying some 1,200 people in a cold and windy shopping arcade. But judging from the mood on the street, Grillo is struggling to ignite the same levels of enthusiasm he enjoyed in Sicily last year.

His humor-laden rant against politicians, bankers, corporate cronies and those who want Italy to join France in Mali drew a warm response. Grillo, who is not running for office himself, also wants a referendum on whether Italy should stay in the euro zone — although that does not seem high on the list of priorities among his supporters, who are more worried about jobs, corruption and local services.

A poll by Tecne released on Monday showed Grillo with 15.3 per cent of support in Campania, a sliver ahead of Monti’s centrists. The poll showed the center-left at 32 percent, leading Berlusconi by four points. But with 46 percent of respondents saying they were undecided or would not vote, the race is wide open.

In an election that is likely to lead to a highly fragmented parliament, opinion polls show Grillo’s movement taking around 15 percent of the vote nationwide, roughly level with Monti’s pro-Europe centrist alliance. Berlusconi’s coalition is polling around 27 percent, some nine points behind the center-left alliance led by Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democrats.

Berlusconi’s campaign has gotten off to a slow start in Naples, as evinced by the lack of his party’s posters in the streets. Nicola Cosentino, a powerful party boss on trial for alleged Mafia association, and two other members of parliament on trial for corruption and abuse of office were dropped by the party from its official list of candidates only at the last moment, following furious polemics that exposed internal disarray.

“It is a very open game in Campania,” comments Federico Monga, deputy editor of the Naples daily newspaper Il Mattino. “There could be big surprises. How many people will actually vote? The level of abstentions could be high.”

— Financial Times