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Defections split the center-right in Italy

ROME (AP) — Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's political heir pledged on Saturday to keep Italy's fragile coalition government afloat now that he has split with the media mogul and formed a potentially rival center-right party.

Deputy Premier Angelino Alfano also turned down Berlusconi's request to join an alliance with his shrunken center-right power base. Instead, Alfano said, he feels compelled to go ahead with the schism "for the love of Italy."

Before Berlusconi's powers were significantly set back by scandals and litigation, Alfano had been groomed eventually to succeed Berlusconi. But on Friday Alfano announced he was splitting from Berlusconi's Forza Italia party to form his own New Center-Right party.

Alfano, who also serves as interior minister in Premier Enrico Letta's coalition government, insisted on Saturday that the governing coalition would survive — at least for a year. He said that he and the other four Cabinet ministers who defected from Berlusconi pledged to remain in the coalition. Albano claimed to have enough senators and deputies in Parliament without Berlusconi's forces to help pass legislation to revive the economy from recession.

"The government will be stable," Alfano said. Instead of taking up Berlusconi's offer to form an alliance with an eye on future elections, Alfano urged Berlusconi's forces to keep backing the 6-month-old government. The senior coalition partner is Letta's Democratic Left.

Many of Berlusconi's loyalists have vowed to withdraw support for the government, if the Senate soon votes to strip the former three-time premier of his seat in Parliament because of his tax fraud conviction.

Speaking to reporters, Alfano described his split with his political mentor as "painful and bitter." But he contended that he made the dramatic break because Berlusconi loyalists wanted to pull the plug on this coalition government, a strategy that would "precipitate the country in a situation that would only aggravate" the economic crisis.

After a year, and assuming the economy improves, Alfano said it would be time to consider early elections to see if the center-right could triumph. At a gathering of loyalists Saturday, Berlusconi abandoned the characteristic defiance he has shown after stinging setbacks and reached out to Alfano, inviting him to join forces to oppose his enemies on the left.

The ex-premier blames his many troubles, including a looming ban on seeking election following a tax fraud conviction, on a judiciary he claims is left leaning. Such a ban would still allow him to lead a political party.

Fighting back tears, Berlusconi told supporters that Alfano's defection was painful but that his followers should not criticize Alfano's new party. "This group ... must necessarily be part of the coalition of moderates," Berlusconi said.

However the Senate votes on Berlusconi's future, he also faces a separate, two-year ban on holding or running for public office, part of his punishment for the criminal conviction. The prospect of the Senate showdown, scheduled for Nov. 27, sparked disarray among the media mogul's forces and set the stage for Alfano's dramatic exit, taking with him many of the more centrist elements in Berlusconi's party.

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