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ROME (Reuters) - The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, already Italy's most popular party, is stealing a march on its divided rivals by drawing up its policy programme a year ahead of elections.
With the ruling centre-left Democratic Party embroiled in a bruising leadership battle and centre-right parties unable to agree on a leader, opinion polls give 5-Star a growing lead, which one pollster last week put as high as 8 percentage points.
As the prospect of victory grows, 5-Star is trying to defuse the charge it is largely a protest party and show it is ready to govern. That means winning the backing of the Catholic church and parts of Italy's ruling elite. It may also mean backtracking on its pledge never to form alliances with other parties.
The party's parliamentarians have begun drawing up programmes on all the main areas of policy and putting them, one by one, to its members in online votes - a procedure which 5-Star says respects its credo of direct democracy.
The members cannot propose policies, but only put in order of preference those drawn up by the party.
So far, it has presented its plans on energy, foreign policy and employment, but they offer few clues on how it could position itself with a view to possible alliances that it would probably need to govern.
Under Italy's system of proportional representation, polls suggest that in the election scheduled for early 2018 no party, 5-Star included, will win enough votes to govern alone.
The party's hostility to the euro, which it wants Italy to abandon through a referendum, and its rejection of multilateral trade deals are likely to find favour with the right-wing Northern League. Its environmentalist ideas on energy and its flagship policy of universal income support for the poor may be more attractive to the left.
"At the moment they are getting support from voters on the left and right, but sooner or later they will have to define themselves more clearly, and then the problems will come," said Piero Ignazi, politics professor at Bologna University.
After the first round of France's presidential election on Sunday, 5-Star said it had "little in common" with either of the candidates who won through to the run-off: centrist Emmanuel Macron or right-wing Marine Le Pen.
"We are not pro-Trump, we are not pro-Putin and neither are we anti-EU," says Alessandro Di Battista, one of 5-Star's most prominent parliamentarians. "We want a strong EU but we say it is depressing to see how it blindly follows the U.S. position."
The party's rejection of "left" and "right" as outdated labels can sometimes seem an uneasy balancing act.
It pushes policies to tackle inequality and poverty but also attacks the trade unions, and its rhetoric on immigration can be close to that of the anti-immigrant Northern League.
This week Luigi Di Maio, the 30-year-old deputy tipped as its likely candidate for prime minister, compared humanitarian groups saving migrants in the Mediterranean to "taxis" and suggested some may be working with people traffickers.
On foreign policy, 5-Star calls for a "rigorous" application of the United Nations charter, condemns unilateral military intervention and calls for an end to the structures enforcing the European Union's fiscal rules.
On energy, it promises incentives for the production and use of electric cars and renewable energy, an end to the use of carbon products to produce electricity in Italy by 2020, and a complete phasing out of fossil fuels by 2050.
Meanwhile, 5-Star is trying to accredit itself among sectors of Italy's ruling class.
It is organising policy conventions attended by prominent economists, academics and opinion-makers, and is also reaching out to the influential Catholic church.
Di Maio has called for curbs on shops opening on Sundays and this month 5-Star's founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, gave a long interview to newspaper Avvenire, owned by the Italian Church, whose director Marco Tarquinio responded with a near-endorsement.
"On the main themes, from work policy to the fight against poverty, we see eye-to-eye in three-quarters of cases," he said.
Editing by Andrew Roche