Italy's Five Star protest party makes waves

By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Rome

image captionFive Star have been contesting elections across Italy such as here in Sicily in October

A citizens' movement mounting an increasingly serious challenge to the Italian political establishment has chosen its candidates for parliament in an unprecedented online vote.

Supporters of the Five Star Movement made their selection from among 1,400 activists.

Each prospective candidate posted a campaign video in which they introduced themselves.

They set out what they stood for and what they would do if elected on behalf of the movement in polls that are scheduled for the spring.

It is believed to be the first time that a political organisation anywhere has conducted this kind of selection process entirely on the web.

And the driving force behind the movement, controversial comedian-turned-political-activist Beppe Grillo, was exuberant after the 95,000 virtual ballots were counted.

"There is no party in the world that votes via the internet, at zero cost - we didn't even spend a euro," he said.

"We've had splendid results. We're going forward."

United in contempt

Mr Grillo pointed out that more women than men had been selected.

image captionComedian Beppe Grillo is one of the best-known members of Five Star

And he celebrated the fact that all kinds of ordinary people - housewives, workers, the unemployed and individuals from many professions - now look destined for parliament under the Five Star banner.

Breaking new ground with an online selection process is an idea very much in keeping with the Five Star ethos. The movement was born and developed almost exclusively on the net.

It has brought together a mass of citizens united in their contempt for what they regard as the country's corrupt, traditional politicians and their parties.

And the movement's making a major impact.

It is currently lying second in the polls, scoring about 20%.

If that figure was translated into votes on election day, the Five Star activists might become the largest opposition bloc in the next parliament.

'No worse'

Among those selected for its list of candidates is Paola Carinelli, a 32-year-old from Milan who works for a courier firm.

She chose to make her video in a park, with a tree full of autumn leaves behind her.

"I joined the movement because I was tired of the situation of this country," Ms Carinelli told the camera.

She said she had watched friends having to go abroad to find work but that she had decided to stay and try to make things better.

And she ended the video by saying that the Five Star phenomenon constituted "a peaceful revolution that is changing the history of Italy".

"Change is possible and the moment is now," she said.

Asked by the BBC what her priority would be if she got elected, Ms Carinelli said, "In general, reducing wasteful spending - not throwing away money."

"There's waste in all sectors," she added, without being more specific.

"The whole system needs to be reviewed. Politics should be more honest and close to the citizens. We definitely lack experience, but we have lots of energy and passion, and we'll learn as we go."

Ms Carinelli argued that it would be difficult for the Five Star candidates to do worse than the current people in power.

'Now they listen'

Another activist chosen to join the list was Stefano Vignaroli, a 36-year-old technician.

His video revealed his commitment to leading an ecologically sound lifestyle.

The film began on the roof of his home, which is covered with solar panels.

"Why run? I thought, 'Why not?'," he told the BBC. "I realised that, on the issue of garbage management, I knew more than the politicians."

Of the three-year old, Five Star Movement itself, Mr Vignaroli said, "It's changed a lot.

"At first people laughed at us but now they listen.

"Many people joined recently. It's nice to always be open to newcomers but during the campaign I noticed there are some people that maybe only care about their personal interest."

Parma setback

As the movement has grown, it has come under increasing scrutiny and attracted criticism from the established political order, and others.

Beppe Grillo is often accused of being a populist, constantly criticising the status quo but having little in the way of detailed, viable proposals for a better way forward.

And he does not seem to have a great deal of patience for dissenting voices within the movement.

There was a damaging episode in the summer when a journalist revealed an off-the-record conversation in which a Five Star activist complained of Mr Grillo's authoritarian tendencies.

And there are questions as to how much change for the better the movement's as yet untested candidates could really bring about; how much of their idealism might survive a collision with the realities of government.

The one major Italian city so far to fall under Five Star management is Parma.

The movement's councillors there campaigned on a promise to try to close down an unpopular incinerator project on the edge of town.

But it has become clear this week that that just will not be possible. Contracts and commitments already made by the city cannot simply be swept aside.

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