Berlusconi relaunches Forza Italia

Berlusconi relaunches Forza Italia

MILAN (AP) — Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Friday formally relaunched Forza Italia, the center-right party that catapulted him to power 20 years ago, but the long-expected announcement was clouded by signs of internal divisions.

The rebirth of Forza Italia is aimed at reinvigorating the center-right, harkening to Berlusconi's triumphant entrance into politics in the early 1990s.

The three-time former premier is on the verge of losing his Senate seat for tax fraud, but he would not be barred from leading a political party.

Still, the announcement of the new Forza Italia, rather than giving clear impetus to the center-right, revealed confusion within the party.

Key figures were absent from the leadership meeting that dissolved the People of Freedom Party, including Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano and other government ministers, suggesting that divisions in the party laid bare by Berlusconi's failed attempt to bring down Premier Enrico Letta's fragile government earlier this month have deepened.

Berlusconi, 77, played down any differences, telling reporters in Rome that Alfano "enjoys his respect" and that the party was united.

He also pledged that the center-right will continue to support Letta's government, just weeks after he failed to bring it down after Alfano and other government ministers from the party refused his order to resign. Berlusconi emerged the weaker from the showdown, giving rise to speculation that the party would split into rival factions.

Political analyst Stefano Folli said the abstentions of Alfano and other center-right ministers indicate that "a split is very probable."

"The party cannot be born with all the ministers in the government absent. That is the ambiguous environment," said Folli, a political analyst at the business daily il Sole-24 Ore.

Folli said Berlusconi's support for Letta is "formal" and that once he loses his Senate seat, the split could formalize with Forza Italia joining the opposition, leaving behind the center-right faction that backs the cross-party Letta government.

Berlusconi announced that Forza Italia will elect its new leader Dec. 8 — the same day the center-left Democratic Party has set its own leadership vote.

It remains unclear when the Senate will vote on yanking his seat for the tax fraud conviction and four-year sentence. The pending six-year political ban would prohibit the billionaire media mogul from running in new elections, but not from heading a political movement.

Berlusconi also faces a trial in February on a corruption charge, and is appealing a conviction of paying an under-age teen for sex and forcing an official to cover it up. He denies wrongdoing in all the cases, claiming he is a victim of a judicial plot to drive him from power.