More recent leaders were more sophisticated: they kept computer records of favours - jobs obtained, strings pulled, problems fixed - and votes owing. The Camorra, the Naples mafia, wielded huge blocks of votes that went to the politicians that would do its bidding.
Now the political bosses have fallen and are facing trial and possible jail. The Camorra, badly hit by top-level arrests, the disappearance of political protectors and the confessions of many pentiti, is in disarray. Where will all these votes go in the epoch-making elections on 27 and 28 March?
'Politics as such has very little to do with it,' said Gianni Festa, political editor of the Naples daily, Il Mattino. With hundreds of thousands unemployed, or eking out a miserable or illegal existence smuggling or dealing in drugs, 'people look to those who can offer them hope', he said.
Palermo, the other big city of the south, has revolted against the Mafia and turned to the left-wing anti-Mafia group La Rete. But Naples is not Sicily. The Camorra, although murderous, has not been as savage as the Sicilian Mafia, Naples has no particular indignation, no protests, no heroes. Here, said Mr Festa, 'politics is married to need'.
'There is a total lack of confidence in everyone and everything,' said Maria Fortuna Incostante, the left-wing candidate who is running against Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the Fascist dictator, in the Naples One constituency, the delapidated old heart of the city.
In the November mayoral elections the left's candidate, Antonio Bassolini, narrowly won against Ms Mussolini, thanks largely to the votes of workers in the industrial belt. But this time Naples, at least the city proper, looks likely to turn to the right - to the neo- Fascist-led National Alliance and to Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
One victor could well be Antonio Rastrelli, the alliance candidate in Naples Two. Tall and distinguished-looking, he is a direct descendant of the Rastrellis who built the Winter Palace and much of St Petersburg for the tsars and has a plan to make Naples a big international port again.
Judging from the warm applause given him in the white- stuccoed, chandelier-hung salon of the Circolo Artistico, opposite the Royal Palace, by immaculately dressed, heavily perfumed women he should do well in Naples Two, where the better-off live.
Ms Mussolini, who is also the niece of the adored star of Naples, Sophia Loren, also knows how to wow them in the narrow, washing-strung alleys of Naples One. With her blonde hair, her luscious pink lips and her common touch - she readily admits that she carries around an amulet for good luck like countless Neapolitans - la pupatella (the dolly) seems to have the edge among the fishwives and smugglers in the all-woman contest against the obviously brainier but less eye-catching Ms Incostante.
A third candidate in Naples One is Dacia Valent, daughter of a Somali princess, former policewoman and the first black MEP. Running for a mixed group she stands virtually no chance of winning.
Recent arrival Forza Italia is fast gaining support. The allegations of corruption and false accounting against Mr Berlusconi's brother Paolo and top executives have clearly done it little harm in Naples. 'Everyone knows that to succeed in business one had to make compromises,' said Salvatore Capobianca, an oculist and head of one of the Forza Italia clubs. In Naples, old habits die hard.Reuse content