CASERTA, ITALY - The young African couple joined the checkout line in a small supermarket in a town in Campania, Italy's southwest region famous for a dramatic coastline, ancient ruins, Naples and the Camorra — one of Italy's top crime mobs. The couple were clutching some basic food items, including milk, bottled water and pasta, and a small plastic bag bulging with change — mostly 1- and 5-cent coins, the proceeds of begging.
Already eyed disdainfully by Italian shoppers, they were met with exasperation and rejection by store clerks when they proffered their money bag to pay. The disdain of the shoppers turned to rage, with shouted calls for the Africans to stop holding up the line and get out.
The Ghanian husband and wife, both in their twenties, one university-educated, who arrived in Italy last year after a hazardous sea crossing from Libya, didn't leave empty-handed — a fellow shopper, a north European, stepped forward to pay in more manageable money, earning grumbles from others for encouraging the Africans.
Much of the media coverage by metropolitan-based reporters of Italy's increasingly bad-tempered parliamentary elections has focused on Rome and the northern cities of Milan, Turin and Venice, where the big flag-waving rallies of the 21 competing parties in a sprawling, messy election are taking place.
But a third of Italians don't live in the big cities or their suburbs, and the voters of small-town and rural Italy will be critical in shaping Sunday's results.
The minor episode in the coastal supermarket illustrates a deep, seething anti-migrant anger in Campania, one on display daily in incidents large and small, that risks undercutting the vote of Italy's ruling Democratic Party (PD) in a region where it runs also the regional government.
Campania's small towns and villages have become ground-zeros when it comes to a migration crisis that has roiled Italian politics, strained the country's resources and tried the patience — and compassion — of Italians. Locals have become infuriated by the record influx of mainly economic migrants from sub-Saharan African countries.
"Yes, it has become more difficult in recent months," said Manu, who shrugged off the disdain he encountered when trying to pay for his groceries with a pile of small coins. He says he and his wife made the perilous journey to Italy with the aim of securing jobs somewhere in Europe and improving their lives.
"Italian hearts have hardened," he said.
Locals acknowledge their attitude indeed has changed because of the sheer numbers of migrants on their streets and their sense of being invaded, as well as the highly public, desperate and mostly Nigerian street prostitution trade on the wind-swept, trash-strewn roads running along the coast north of Naples.
Like much of Italy, anti-migrant fervor has been shaping campaigning in Campania, where the maverick, anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) is co-opting the votes of the PD by feeding off local anger toward asylum-seekers and blaming the government of Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni for failing to come to grips with the influx and of finding ways to halt it.
It is a region M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, a suave, boyishly telegenic 31-year-old, knows well, having been born and raised in Pomigliano d'Arco, a small municipality on the outskirts of Naples just north of Mount Vesuvius.
Di Maio also knows what arguments to make when trying to counter the campaigning of challenger Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing coalition made up of the 81-year-old former prime minister's Forza Italia and three other parties, including Matteo Salvini's far-right populist Lega, which has called for the mass clean-out of migrants. Di Maio is as uncompromising about migrants but is less specific about what his party will do about them.
The governing PD desperately needs to hang on in the south, especially in the 15 electoral districts of Campania, to avoid a crushing, historic national defeat. PD strategists are hoping the recognizable names of the party's parliamentary candidates — long-serving politicians well known to the communities — will be enough to stave off electoral humiliation.
But long service brings dangerous baggage.
Campania is home to one of Italy's most powerful Mafia mobs, the Camorra, which is enmeshed in the politics of the region. The public image is of a mob that makes most of its money from drugs and prostitution.
But anti-Mafia prosecutors say that while narcotics and sex trafficking are both highly important revenue streams for the Camorra, the big money is made in public-sector fraud, construction contracts and waste management. The longer the public service, the more likely a politician has had to make deals with the mobsters, public prosecutors tell VOA.
As the election has unfolded in Campania, politically damaging leaks about police probes into PD politicians have multiplied — the most embarrassing for the party involving an investigation into the son of regional Governor Vincenzo De Luca. The governor claims the whole thing is a setup. Nonetheless, in such a tight election the news of the police probe could have a major impact.
"Campania is the Ohio of Italy," said Paolo Russo, a center-right politician. He argues the greatest risk for Berlusconi and his electoral alliance, which has been pushing a plan for major tax cuts, is that the PD vote collapses to well below 20 percent, which he believes could benefit M5S and ensure the maverick upstart emerges from the voting as the largest single parliamentary party, preventing the right-wing electoral alliance led by Forza Italia from securing an overall parliamentary majority.
In short, Berlusconi's alliance needs the PD to do poorly, but not too poorly. A few hundred votes either way in Campania could make all the difference nationally.
And such a tight race raises the question of the Camorra. Vote-buying, regardless of party affiliation, is a habitual practice in Campania, prompting Italy's interior minister, Marco Minniti, to question the outsize dangers that poses.
"There is a concrete risk of the Mafias disrupting electors' free vote," Minniti said last week as he presented an annual report to the Anti-Mafia Commission in Rome. "The Mafias are able to shape institutions and politics."