August 29, 2019 / 5:00 PM / 20 days ago

5-Star online vote could yet scupper Italy's nascent government

ROME (Reuters) - Italy appears to be moving closer to ending a three-week political crisis with the collapse of one government and the arrival of another, but an online vote could still puncture market euphoria and plunge the country back into chaos.

FILE PHOTO: Italian Deputy Prime Minister and 5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio leaves after casting his vote in the European election in Pomigliano d'Arco, Italy May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ciro de Luca/File Photo

The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has said that before it signs off on its coalition deal with the center-left Democratic Party (PD) it will put the accord to a web-based ballot of its members, respecting the party’s credo of direct democracy.

The date of the vote has not yet been set, but it will be held in the next few days on 5-Star’s internet platform, dubbed Rousseau after the 18th century Swiss-born philosopher.

The outcome is far from certain. Many 5-Star members view the PD as the very symbol of a corrupt Italian establishment that 5-Star was set up to fight a decade ago.

An opinion poll by the Winpoll agency on Sunday showed 43% of 5-Star voters backed an alliance with the PD. While less than a majority, that was still up steeply from previous polls and twice as much as for the other options on the table.

Some 22% wanted a snap election, 16% favored resurrecting 5-Star’s previous coalition with the hard-right League, and 19% were undecided.

Web-based direct democracy has been one of 5-Star’s core principles since it was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio, an internet visionary who died three years ago.

In its early years the movement used its website and Grillo’s blog to debate and hold votes before Rousseau, a purpose-built platform, was developed and wheeled out in 2016.

But the system has been plagued by hacking attacks during key votes, and in April this year Italy’s data protection authority fined the company that runs the platform 50,000 euros ($56,000.00) for failing to protect users’ personal details.

UNDEMOCRATIC?

5-Star has held dozens of online votes on key decisions, including one to elect its leader Luigi Di Maio and another on whether to enter its previous coalition with the League. The most recent one was on whether to vote in parliament to defend League leader Matteo Salvini from prosecution for preventing migrants disembarking from an Italian coastguard ship.

“I don’t feel comfortable because there is no clearly identified third party that controls the votes and vouches for their authenticity,” says David Puente, a computer expert and web developer who used to work for Casaleggio Associati, the company that ran 5-Star’s original website.

Critics also say that deciding strategy by online votes involving just tens of thousands of activists runs counter to parliamentary representative democracy. 5-Star says some 100,000 members are enrolled on Rousseau, but fewer than half usually take part in its votes.

A popular meme on Italian social media shows the head of state Sergio Mattarella discussing with the bewigged Rousseau in his palace, mimicking his formal consultations with Italy’s party delegations to try to resolve the political crisis.

The online votes have normally followed the will of 5-Star’s top brass - but not always. In 2014, members voted against scrapping a law making irregular immigration a criminal offense even though Grillo had called for the legislation to be revoked.

5-Star’s chiefs are divided over the proposed coalition with the PD and, with haggling continuing over policy and cabinet posts, some analysts say the online vote gives the party a last-minute way out if it feels it is being outmaneuvered.

Either way, the wording of the ballot question is likely to be important. Assuming the party’s leadership want the coalition to go ahead, it may stress the policies the party plans to enact rather than the partner it must enact them with.

“The online vote promises to provide another textbook example of how to phrase a leading question,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham.

($1 = 0.8973 euros)

Reporting By Gavin Jones; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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