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Thursday February 27, 2014 MYT 4:20:02 AM
Thursday February 27, 2014 MYT 4:21:10 AM
by gavin jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement on Wednesday kicked out four senators for criticising its leader Beppe Grillo, in the latest sign of growing internal strife in the party that took a quarter of votes at last year's election.
Polls suggest 5-Star has kept most of its support despite a trickle of defections or expulsions of lawmakers unhappy with Grillo, a fiery comedian who rode a wave of public disgust with traditional parties to create a powerful political force.
In an online ballot, around 68 percent of the 43,000 5-Star members who participated voted to expel senators Luis Orellana, Francesco Campanella, Lorenzo Battista and Fabrizio Bocchino following a recommendation by the party's lawmakers.
"Now we are slightly fewer but much much stronger and more cohesive," said Grillo, whose movement still ranks as the third biggest party in terms of seats in parliament.
But several 5-Star parliamentarians said they were unhappy with the path the party was taking.
The movement is split between a majority of loyalists and a growing minority of dissidents unhappy with Grillo's autocratic methods and political strategy of hardline opposition.
Of the 54 senators and 109 lower house deputies elected last year, eight senators and three deputies have now left 5-Star and there has been media speculation for months of possible defections by scores more of the young lawmakers, most of whom had no previous political experience.
Grillo wrote on his blog that the four senators had been lazy and were "no longer in synch with the movement," but the catalyst for their expulsion was their criticism of Grillo in his dealings with new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
In a brief meeting with Renzi last week, broadcast online, Grillo used the opportunity to attack the prime minister rather than seek common ground as the dissidents would have preferred.
Some parliamentarians criticised the latest expulsions, raising the prospect of more defections.
Lower house deputy Ivan Catalano said they signalled "the death of the 5-Star Movement," while another deputy, Alessio Tacconi, said he was considering quitting in solidarity with the former senators.
The 5-Star Movement commands around 22 percent of the vote, according to most opinion polls, down from the roughly 25 percent it won at the February 2013 election.
Renzi, who heads a fragile left-right coalition, is likely to welcome any signs of a 5-Star split. He has repeatedly appealed to movement's parliamentarians to reject the uncompromising opposition dictated by Grillo and to collaborate with his government.
(Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
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