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Italy's right could split after Berlusconi move: lawmakers

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi looks on during a news conference at Chigi Palace in Rome August 4, 2011. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi looks on during a news conference at Chigi Palace in Rome August 4, 2011. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's political center-right could split, lawmakers said on Saturday, after Silvio Berlusconi resurrected his old Forza Italia party and suspended the People of Freedom (PDL), part of the wobbly left-right coalition government.

Several parliamentarians allied to the former prime minister were critical of Berlusconi's move, and five senior PDL members boycotted Friday's meeting where the decision was made.

Forza Italia (Go Italy!) was Berlusconi's party when he first entered politics in 1994, and although he said it would support the government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, just as the PDL has done, it has caused a rift among his followers.

"My absence at the president's office was motivated by my total opposition to the proposal to dissolve the PDL... to return to a Forza Italia which I have never been a part of," Senator Carlo Giovanardi said on his website.

Giovanardi added that the center-right could split into two allied groups: Forza Italia led by Berlusconi and a PDL led by its current secretary Angelino Alfano.

Alfano led an internal party revolt earlier this month that thwarted Berlusconi's attempt to bring down Letta's coalition.

Prominent PDL official Fabrizio Cicchitto told La Repubblica newspaper he saw the center right becoming a "two-pole system", and said the decision to wind down the PDL was not valid until ratified by a vote at a December 8 party conference.

In emailed statements, some lawmakers continued to sign off as members of "People of Freedom" while others switched to use "Forza Italia".

Despite signs of strain, many party officials played down divisions and tried to present a common front.

"The return of Forza Italia will signal a new season of success for the center right, Berlusconi will know how to find unity!" former PDL Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said on Twitter.

Those allied with Alfano are known as "doves", seen as moderate and more reluctant to undermine the government.

Berlusconi loyalists are described as more hardline "hawks", who frequently threaten to bring down the government unless it cuts taxes.

Estimates by Italian newspapers said Alfano's faction would be big enough to keep Letta from losing his government majority should Berlusconi's group withdraw its support.

But the turmoil could further hamper efforts by the coalition to force through reforms and spur growth in the euro zone's largest economy, stuck in its longest post-war recession.

Berlusconi, 77, who has dominated the political right for two decades, faces expulsion from parliament following a tax fraud conviction.

The media tycoon is also embroiled in other cases on charges including corruption and paying for sex with a minor. He maintains the trials against him are attempts by biased judges to destroy a political opponent.

(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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