Italian party uses Internet to select parliamentary candidates

Critics say the process was nevertheless controlled by top officials

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.

At the general election expected next February Grillo's forces will find themselves pitted against Silvio Berlusconi, the 76-year-old media magnate who announced his return to politics over the weekend and who has three of his own TV channels, newspapers and magazines at his disposal for political propaganda.

The contest will provide an interesting measure of the influence of new social media on political competition, with Grillo's movement relying almost entirely on the Internet, and a medium such as Twitter making itself felt for the first time in Italy; a trending topic following Berlusconi's announcement was #Iwon'tvoteforhim.

Casaleggio, whose company Casaleggio Associates produces Grillo's blog and organized the online candidate selection, was reportedly the only senior political activist to take advantage of the offer of a meeting last week with Michael Slaby, the chief integration and innovation officer for U.S. President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign and the tech mastermind behind Obama's 2008 victory.

The Italian communications guru, who has even more hair than Grillo, discussed political marketing with the man who masterminded President Obama's new media re-election campaign. The two met at a hotel in Milan, where Slaby was on a private visit to address a university class of journalism students, La Stampa newspaper reported.

The American expert was reportedly impressed by Casaleggio's account of the 5-Star Movement's online activities, while warning Italian audiences of the danger of excluding large numbers of people still cut off from online political discourse by the digital divide.

"It's an absolutely new phenomenon," Slaby was quoted as saying of Grillo's online organization. "We'll just have to wait and see how people respond."

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Tags e-governmentMichael SlabyBeppe Grillogovernment

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