Italy's 5-Star expels rebel Senator who criticized leader

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement on Wednesday kicked out a lawmaker for criticizing its leader Beppe Grillo in the latest sign of growing internal strife in the party that took a quarter of votes at February's election.

Grillo, a fiery former comedian, rode a wave of public disgust with traditional parties but has faced growing dissent among his own ranks after refusing to support any government after the deadlocked election.

The 5-Star's internal travails should have little near-term effect on the left-right coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, which Grillo's movement opposes.

In an online ballot around 66 percent of the 20,000 5-Star members who participated voted to expel Senator Adele Gambaro for her comments in a television interview this month in which she blamed Grillo for 5-Star's poor showing in local elections.

She was expelled for making comments that Grillo said were "untrue and damaging to the movement, without coordinating with the parliamentary group".

5-Star's parliamentarians increasingly are split between a majority of loyalists and a growing minority of dissidents who are unhappy with Grillo's autocratic style and political strategy of hardline opposition.

Gambaro is the fourth elected representative to leave since the election and there is wide speculation that there may soon be large scale defections among the scores of young lawmakers, most of whom had no previous political experience.

Grillo shunned the opportunity to be kingmaker after the election produced no clear majority, sticking with his pledge to make no alliances with traditional parties.

However, as Letta's government has shown signs of stabilizing 5-Star has looked increasingly isolated, weakened by its internal divisions, inexperience and an almost universally hostile domestic media.

Recent opinion polls give the movement between 18 and 20 percent of popular support, down from the 25 percent that it won at the election.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Michael Roddy)