Italy's 5-Star splits with web platform as it heads towards mainstream

FILE PHOTO: Founder Beppe Grillo speaks at the 5-Star Movement party's open-air rally at Circo Massimo in Rome, Italy, October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's 5-Star Movement on Friday parted company with its co-founders at the firm that provides its internet platform as new leadership transforms a protest party committed to web-based direct democracy into a more mainstream, centre-left group.

5-Star has been in government since its triumph at 2018 elections and is the largest party in parliament, but its popularity has been undermined by policy U-turns and internal feuding.

Since the movement was created in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and internet guru Gianroberto Casaleggio, the party and its web platform have been umbilically linked.

All 5-Star's main decisions have been taken on the basis of online votes of its members, and its parliamentarians have to pay part of their salary to finance the platform, called Rousseau after the 18th century Swiss philosopher.

However in recent months, and in particular since former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte became 5-Star's leader in February, relations with the Rousseau Association have become increasingly strained, with many lawmakers refusing to pay for its upkeep.

On Friday Rousseau said it had to send its staff home on reduced pay and its relationship with 5-Star was at an end.

"Staying together must be a mutual choice and it requires respect and responsibility from both sides. Unfortunately this hasn't happened," it said in a blog post.

The reasons for the rupture go much further than money.

Conte wants to give the movement a more traditional, moderate face as part of his efforts to form a stable alliance with the centre-left Democratic Party.

But the Rousseau Association's chief Davide Casaleggio, the son of Gianroberto, is a hard-liner who believes the party is betraying its anti-establishment roots.

5-Star blamed the Rousseau association for the divorce, saying in a statement that it had tried to meddle in the party's political decisions.

It said it maintained its commitment to direct democracy and had already begun looking for other digital providers to take Rousseau's place.

(Reporting By Gavin Jones; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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