Berlusconi's center-right party in schism

ROME (AP) Silvio Berlusconi suffered another major setback on Friday after his political heir announced he was leaving Berlusconi's party to form a new political grouping, creating a schism in Italy's center-right that raised fresh questions about the stability of the government.

Angelino Alfano, currently interior minister and deputy premier, told colleagues Friday that his "New Center-Right" party would continue to support Berlusconi, the LaPresse news agency reported. But Alfano said he couldn't agree to join Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, which is due to be formally re-launched on Saturday.

Alfano could count on 37 senators and 23 lawmakers in the lower Chamber of Deputies for his new party, one of the breakaway senators, Roberto Formigoni, told the La 7 network.

Their refusal to join Forza Italia marked a formal schism in Italy's center-right that has been in the works ever since Berlusconi was forced to back down on his threat to topple Premier Enrico Letta's government.

Berlusconi had to do an about-face on Oct. 2 after key loyalists like Alfano refused to back him in his threat.

Transport minister Maurizio Lupi told reporters after a late-night meeting Friday of members of Berlusconi's camp that the decision to split was taken with "great suffering" but that the lawmakers couldn't participate in a Forza Italia of "extremists."

Berlusconi's camp has been deeply divided between hawks and doves ever since Italy's high court confirmed his tax fraud conviction in August. The hawks had backed Berlusconi in trying to bring down Letta's government over moves by the Senate to kick him out of the upper chamber as a result of the conviction.

In the end, the doves won out and Berlusconi was forced to back Letta's government in a confidence vote. But after weeks of negotiation, the two sides were unable keep the movement united under one party, Lupi said.

The implications of the split on Letta's government weren't immediately clear. Letta, a member of the center-left Democratic Party, formed his hybrid right-left government after inconclusive elections in February. His government currently includes five ministers from Berlusconi's camp.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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