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1ST LEAD Italy's populist Five Star Movement hit by embezzlement scandal By Alvise Armellini, dpa

By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
Rome (dpa) - Italy‘s Five Star Movement (M5S), a high-flying populist opposition party whose motto is to clean up politics, has been hit with an embarrassing scandal three weeks before a general election.

Since the M5S believes that politicians are overpaid, its lawmakers are supposed to devolve a large part of their salary to a state fund that helps small businesses.

But over the past 48 hours, three parliamentarians have been found out to have faked payments to the fund, pocketing the money for themselves.

Out of 23.1 million euros (28.5 million dollars) supposedly returned to the fund, some 1.4 million euros are missing, according to La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera newspapers.

The M5S has not confirmed the figure.

"Some [...] have breached our rules and did not donate all that they should have. A betrayal of our principles and of the trust of our members. That‘s why they will be expelled from the Movement," M5S prime ministerial candidate Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook.

The affair threatens M5S‘ self-styled image as the only clean party amid corrupt political elites, and follows last week‘s revelations that part of their election manifesto was plagiarized from a variety of sources, including Wikipedia.

Outgoing M5S lawmakers Andrea Cecconi, Carlo Martelli and Maurizio Buccarelli have admitted to making mistakes and vowed to give up their parliamentary seats if elected in the March 4 elections.

Parliamentary candidate Emanuele Dessi previously made the same pledge after the media revealed he is paying a pittance for rent - less than 8 euros (10 dollars) a month - for a council flat near Rome.

Another parliamentary hopeful, Catello Vitiello, was expelled after being outed as a member of the Freemasonry, which the M5S abhors. But he says he will defy Di Maio and will keep his seat if elected.

"I hope for the Five Star that March 4 will come soon, because every day they lose one or two" candidates, ex-premier and centre-left leader Matteo Renzi told the foreign press in Rome.

"The Five Star [...] have decent and honest people and they have crooks and scroungers within them, exactly like everybody else," Renzi, who leads the Democratic Party (PD) added.

The scandal was first revealed by "Le Iene," a TV programme by Mediaset, the media company of ex-premier and conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi.

In opinion polls, the M5S is the single most popular party, but analysts say it has little chance of winning power unless its overcomes its reluctance about alliances with other parties.

Polling averages compiled by the YouTrend website show Berlusconi‘s bloc as leading with 36.7 per cent, followed by the M5S on 27.8 per cent and a PD-led alliance on 27.2 per cent.

Unless support for Berlusconi‘s camp surges above 40 per cent, no party or coalition is likely to win a parliamentary majority, paving the way for difficult negotiations on government formation.


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