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M5S in turmoil as six Senators quit over ejected rebels

Movement split after Grillo's tirade against Renzi

27 February, 19:59
M5S in turmoil as six Senators quit over ejected rebels (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Rome, February 27 - The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comedian-turned politician Beppe Grillo was on the verge of splitting Thursday after the expulsion of four members for daring to criticise their leader's tirade against Premier Matteo Renzi during his government-formation talks.

Grillo has been accused of authoritarian methods before and has not hesitated to eject followers for talking to the hated mainstream media.

But the latest incident has brought tensions within Italy's second-biggest political force to a head amid accusations of hypocrisy on his part.

The Genoese millionaire former comic, in fact, went to the consultations with Democratic Party (PD) leader Renzi at the behest of the movement, after a customary online vote.

But instead of talking to the then premier-designate, as was his apparent Web mandate, he cut him off, saying "I'm not democratic" before launching into a rant against the powers that be which he says Renzi, like his predecessors on left and right, represents.

The four rebels pointed out that the incoming reform-minded Renzi might have been an acceptable interlocutor even for such an intransigent anti-system force as the M5S, which came narrowly behind the PD in inconclusive elections a year ago.

But this infuriated Grillo, who held an online 'assembly' to essentially rubberstamp a decision which had already been taken.

In protest Thursday, six M5S Senators presented their resignations as parliamentarians, siding with the ousted members in arguing that Grillo had betrayed the founding principles of the movement and had taken his high-handed methods one step too far.

The resignations are expected to be accepted, although there was some uncertainty about this.

The six Senators who quit included Luis Orellana, one of the four voted out of the movement on Wednesday for speaking out against Grillo's volcanic display during the talks with Renzi last week before the PD leader took power at the weekend.

The expulsions, decided at a rowdy meeting of M5S lawmakers and subsequently ratified by the vote of supporters on Grillo's blog, uncovered deep divisions about the movement's intolerance of internal dissent.

Alessio Tacconi, an M5S member in the Lower House, confirmed Thursday that he was leaving the movement and another MP, Ivan Catalano, defected too.

There are reports that M5S rebels could form new groups in both the Senate and the Lower House.

But Grillo loyalists were unfazed.

"Finally the dead weights are going," said eight M5S MPs who said the M5S would be "purer and stronger" without such unfaithful members.

"They are people who, from this moment on, will become parasites. They should resign, not change party," added the group, including high-ranking M5S figures Luigi Di Maio and Alessandro Di Battista.

M5S Senate communications chief Claudio Messora said: "A war can be waged in many ways but once it's started it must be waged to the end".

Grillo has suggested the rebels are motivated by money and will no longer return the part of their salaries that is in excess of their needs to cover living expenses, as M5S lawmakers have pledged to do.

Tacconi demanded the M5S take back insinuations about him failing return the excess of his salary, saying otherwise it would show that the movement "uses the mud-slinging machine against those who express unwelcome opinions". Grillo said ejecting the four dissidents would make the M5S "more cohesive and stronger" even if it meant the movement had fewer MPs.

The M5S ejected two parliamentarians last year for expressing dissent. Senator Adele Gambaro was thrown out in June after blaming Grillo for the party's poor showing at a round of local elections. Another Senator, Marino Mastrangeli, was voted out in April for breaking a ban on appearing on television chat shows, which Grillo - who will only talk to the foreign press - says are rigged to favour the established parties along with much of the rest of the Italian media. A handful of other M5S lawmakers have voluntarily left the movement after it won around a quarter of the vote at last year's inconclusive general election.

Renzi reportedly hopes the ex-M5S members will bolster his majority in the Senate, which is much smaller than in the PD-dominated House. PD MP Pippo Civati, leader of a left-leaning faction that has grudgingly accepted Renzi's centrist policies and ruthless ouster of the PD's previous premier, Enrico Letta, predicted that another four M5S Senators would defect.

This would constitute a group of 14, he pointed out, enough to set up their own caucus.

But one of the six who resigned, Senator Alessandra Bencini, said "I rule out any plan to join other groups, even ones comprising solely ex-M5S members".

Civati, meanwhile, reiterated that he had no plans to team up with the leftwing SEL party and the ex-M5S members to set up a rival to the PD that would pursue an allegedly more progressive agenda.

He repeated that, while disagreeing with Renzi on several points, he and other dissidents would remain in the party.

Although expulsions are not rare in Italian political history, especially by the once-strong Italian Communist Party, Grillo's latest crackdown prompted cross-party criticism.

MPs on left and right described them as "Stalinist purges". One went so far as to say that, if Grillo ever took power, his opponents would be thrown into jail.