An online rejection of the coalition would have pressured the Five Stars to back away from the agreement, probably setting up new elections that would have sprung a far-right government into power. Instead, the more European Union-friendly Five Star-Democratic Party government could be in place by the end of the week.
The two parties, vicious political sparring partners, have joined hands as a way to avoid elections and head off the rise of nationalist Matteo Salvini.
Online polls on major political decisions are a core part of the Five Star Movement brand. The party has promoted itself with a radical, populist version of digital direct democracy. Its leaders have spoken about the Internet’s utopian possibilities: allowing maximum transparency, with everybody having a say.
But dissidents and watchdogs say the party is anything but transparent. Its votes are carried out on an in-house Web platform created by Davide Casaleggio, a media-shy figure and Web entrepreneur who is often described as a the real power broker behind the Five Stars. Even Tuesday, the party needed 80 minutes after the vote ended to disclose the results.
Casaleggio’s platform, named Rousseau in honor of the French philosopher, was fined 50,000 euros earlier this year by a government privacy watchdog because of the way it handles personal information. Critics say the Five Star’s platform is open to manipulation and hacking, and it has only about 100,000 registered members — compared with 10 million people who voted for the party in March 2018 national elections.
Tuesday, among nearly 80,000 votes, 79.3 percent were in favor of the coalition, according to a post on the Five Star Movement’s official blog.
“I think we must be very proud that the whole world has been waiting for the decision of these 80,000 Italian citizens who voted on a platform unique in the world called Rousseau,” the Five Star leader, Luigi Di Maio, said at a news conference Tuesday night.
The question in the online poll read: “Do you agree with the Five Star Movement launching a government along with the Democratic Party headed by Giuseppe Conte?”
Casaleggio’s Milan-based company controls the Rousseau platform, and Casaleggio, a onetime child chess star, has assumed a larger role since the 2016 death of his father, Gianroberto Casaleggio, who co-founded the Five Stars along with comedian Beppe Grillo. After the Five Stars emerged from 2018 national elections as Italy’s most popular party, Davide Casaleggio wrote in The Washington Post that the movement was an “unstoppable wind” that was “aligned to the future.”
“Direct democracy, made possible by the Internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organizations,” he wrote.
The movement has long depended on the platform, using it for selecting parliamentary candidates and for affirming policies. In May, after a stinging result in European parliamentary elections, Di Maio put his own leadership to a vote; he survived. And last year, the party voters approved an earlier coalition with Salvini’s far-right League, with 94 percent in favor of the deal.
But that coalition lasted only 14 months. In early August, Salvini yanked his support for the marriage, hoping to trigger elections and become prime minister. Instead, he watched as the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement ignored years of insults and tried to find some common ground. Five Star leaders, including Grillo, the often-vulgar comedian who was the public frontman during the party’s rise, have often depicted the Democratic Party as the apotheosis of corruption and backroom deals.
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.