ROME (Reuters) - Lawmakers from Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement agreed on Monday to hold an online vote on the expulsion of a senator who publicly attacked its founder, Beppe Grillo, raising the risk of a split in the group.
Senator Adele Gambaro last week openly expressed her unhappiness with Grillo's autocratic style, blaming him for 5-Star's poor showing in recent local elections, in which it won only two towns out of more than 500.
Leaders of the movement said her comments were detrimental to its image and urged her to resign. When she refused, they called a meeting of party members from both houses of parliament to decide her fate.
After more than four hours of talks, 79 members voted in favor of holding an online vote on her expulsion, while 42 were against and nine abstained.
"The problem is not criticizing, we believe absolutely in freedom of speech and expression, but freedom does not mean going ahead without any limits," Nicola Morra, the leader of the 5-Star Movement in the Senate, said after the vote.
The decision could heighten tension within the movement, which is believed to be close to fragmenting, partly because of anger over Grillo's intolerance of dissent in a grassroots group in which everyone is supposed to have a say.
The 5-Star philosophy is based on direct democracy through online voting, but most big decisions have been made by Grillo, who is not in parliament, and announced on his influential blog without consulting his deputies.
Two lawmakers have already walked out in protest against his domineering style and a third member was thrown out for defying orders not to take part in TV talk shows.
The movement looked like a potential kingmaker in an inconclusive general election in February, in which it won a quarter of the national vote, but it stuck to a pledge not to form a government with existing parties, which it says are all corrupt.
National support for 5-Star has now fallen to about 18 percent, the latest survey from the SWG institute showed, putting it in third place behind the center-left Democratic Party and center-right People of Freedom party.