Members of Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement have voted to block a kidnapping trial against Matteo Salvini, leader of League, averting possible embarrassment for the ruling coalition government.
A poll held on the Five Star’s web platform Rousseau on Monday ended with 59 per cent of voters deciding not to push for Mr Salvini’s legal immunity to be lifted.
The interior minister is being investigated by Sicilian prosecutors over his blocking a coastguard vessel from entering Italy in August last year with 177 migrants on board.
Five Star burst on to the Italian political scene with a vow to tackle decades of political corruption scandals. It also promised that it would operate as a digital direct democracy, allowing its army of online activists to decide party policy through votes on the Rousseau platform.
As an Italian senator, Mr Salvini enjoys immunity from prosecution unless the Senate votes to lift it, which would require Five Star to vote to do so. That has placed the party, which has long argued against Italian politicians enjoying immunity from prosecution, under pressure to find a way of placating its members while not endangering its alliance with Mr Salvini's League.
Before Monday’s vote Five Star called on its members to support Mr Salvini, arguing that his actions to block the migrant ship were carried out as part of his role as interior minister and were signed off by the government collectively.
“It is an unprecedented case because never in the past has the judiciary asked parliament to authorise a trial for a minister who had acted in the performance of his duties,” the party wrote on its blog before the vote.
The vote over whether to lift Mr Salvini’s immunity has come as Five Star’s popularity is slipping ahead of European elections in May, having been overtaken by Mr Salvini’s anti-migrant League in national opinion polls.
Some Five Star figures criticised the unclear wording of the online poll, which was phrased in a way that they argue made it unclear what members were voting on.
Beppe Grillo, the politically incorrect comedian who co-founded the party and for years served as its public face but who now is not officially involved with its daily operations, joked that the question was phrased as a "Catch-22". – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019