Italian party uses Internet to select parliamentary candidates

Critics say the process was nevertheless controlled by top officials

By Philip Willan, IDG News Service |  IT Management

Italy's innovative 5-Star Movement last week organized an online vote to choose its candidates for next year's national election in what it said was the first such exercise ever to be attempted.

The movement founded by Beppe Grillo, a caustic comic who has called for a "Nuremberg trial" for corrupt politicians, has long eschewed traditional media, preferring to organize and communicate over the Internet.

The party has no representatives in parliament but performed well in recent local elections and opinion polls show support from around 15 percent of Italian voters, making it the third-largest political force in the land.

Following a four-day online vote, Grillo announced on his blog last Friday that some 95,000 movement supporters had participated in the online vote, with 1,400 people standing as potential candidates.

The successful candidates were young, enthusiastic and inexperienced, and many of them were women, published reports showed. The candidates posted their curricula and YouTube-style presentation videos on the 5-Star Movement website, where registered supporters of the movement, who had sent in digital copies of their identity documents, were able to view the material and express three choices.

Grillo prides himself on the transparency and modernity of his movement's practices: Regional representatives use webcams to stream coverage of their activities in local assemblies, those elected to parliament will be required to report daily on their actions on the movement's dedicated YouTube channel, and members are invited to contribute online to the drafting of the organization's political program.

But the beta version of candidate selection has been criticized for technical gremlins and a general lack of transparency. Only members registered before the end of September were allowed to see the identity of the candidates and critics say the number of votes mentioned by Grillo has to be divided by three to get an idea of the actual number of participants.

Politicians from rival parties said some candidates had been selected with as few as 70 Internet votes and the absence of any independent scrutiny left Grillo and his communications guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio, with absolute control over the outcome.

"Rather than primaries, this looks more like a Masonic lodge," commented one indignant online observer.

Long banned from state television as a comedian for insulting the country's political leaders, the hirsute 5-Star Movement's leader has given strict instructions to his followers to avoid the medium, which he sees as a vanity trap manipulated by journalists at the service of the traditional political parties.

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