Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement will on Monday vote on whether to lift the legal immunity on Matteo Salvini, leader of its coalition partner the League, in a move that would allow prosecutors to proceed with a case against him.
Five Star burst on to the Italian political scene with a vow to tackle decades of corruption by stripping the country’s politicians of immunity against prosecution. It also promised it would operate as a digital direct democracy, allowing its army of online activists to decide party policy through votes on its web platform, Rousseau.
Now, burdened by the realities of government, Five Star is faced with a painful dilemma: to stick to the letter of its radical founding principals, or to risk bringing down the “government of change” that it formed with the hard-right League last year.
Prosecutors in Sicily are investigating Mr Salvini, Italy's interior minister, for blocking 177 migrants on a coast guard vessel from entering the country in August last year.
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.
Five Star is calling 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 ahead of the online vote on Monday.
The debate over whether Five Star should vote to lift Mr Salvini’s immunity comes as the party’s popularity is slipping ahead of European elections in May, having been overtaken by Mr Salvini’s anti-migrant League in national opinion polls.
It has also exposed divisions between the party's leadership, fronted by Luigi Di Maio, who shares the role of Italy's deputy prime minister with Mr Salvini, and rank-and-file members who are anxious that the radical soul of the movement remains intact.
Mr Salvini has been campaigning in Sardinia ahead of regional elections there this week, where he said he expected to see a right-wing coalition including the League win power from the centre-left Democratic party. On Sunday he said he was "sleeping peacefully" ahead of the Five Star vote. "If they vote yes, they vote yes, if they vote no, they vote no."
Some Five Star figures have criticised the unclear wording of the online poll, which is phrased in a way that they argue makes it unclear what members are 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”.
Paola Nugnes, a Five Star senator, said on Twitter that "to give authorisation [for the case against Salvini to proceed] you have to vote NO", given the confusion over the wording. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019