Berlusconi invites former allies into alliance

FILE - In this April 23, 2013 file photo, then People of Freedom party leader Silvio Berlusconi, left, is followed by party secretary Angelino Alfano as they meet journalists after talks with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, in Rome's Quirinale presidential palace during consultations to form a new government. Berlusconi's political heir, Alfano, currently Interior Minister and Deputy Premier, announced Friday Nov. 16, 2013, that he was leaving Berlusconi's party to form a new political group, creating a schism in Italy's center-right that raised fresh questions about the stability of the government. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, files)

ROME (AP) — Stung by a party schism, former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday invited defectors to join in an alliance with his center-right power base, a bid that could help boost the media mogul's leadership prospects.

Berlusconi abandoned the characteristic defiance he has shown after previous stinging setbacks by reaching out to Deputy Premier Angelino Alfano to try to forge a political alliance 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 sympathizes with the left. Such a ban would still allow him to lead a political party.

Premier Enrico Letta's center-left Democratic Party is the lead partner in an unusual, 6-month-old governing coalition with Berlusconi's center-right forces. Whether the schism in Berlusconi's Freedom People fold will have repercussions on Italy's fragile government, which has been struggling to pull the country out of a persistent recession, wasn't immediately clear.

Alfano, who also serves as interior minister in Letta's government, called a news conference for later Saturday.

On Friday evening, Alfano announced he was splitting from Berlusconi to form his own New Center-Right party.

In his first public comments about the schism an emotional Berlusconi told supporters that Alfano's decision deeply pains him and that he "didn't sleep last night." Berlusconi described the split as going against his "vision of uniting all the moderates, who, if they were all together, would be the majority of the electorate."

Still, he urged his followers not to criticize Alfano's new party.

"This group, even if for now it looks like it is (ending up) supporting the left, must necessarily be part of the coalition of moderates," Berlusconi said. "We must treat them as we now treat" other key allies on the right, including the anti-Europe Northern League and a small right-wing party.

Berlusconi said failure for the center-right to pull together would have dire consequences for Italy.

If the next government should exclude his forces, "I believe many of us won't stick around to live in Italy...but be forced to expatriate."

Fellow senators must decide in an approaching vote to strip him of his Senate seat because of the tax fraud conviction, which was upheld by Italy's top court in August. He also faces a separate, two-year ban on holding or running for public office linked to the tax fraud conviction.

The prospect of the Senate showdown, scheduled for Nov. 27, has sparked disarray among Berlusconi's forces.

Last month, his top deputies, led by Alfano, balked at his order to bring down Letta's government in a no-confidence vote in what was essentially seen as an act of sabotage by a Berlusconi enraged that Letta's party would vote against his staying in the Senate.

Separately, Berlusconi also risks a lifetime ban on holding public office if he loses his bid in appeals courts to overturn a conviction for allegedly paying a minor for sex and later using his office while premier to try to cover up the purported sexual relationship with the teenage girl.

One of the left's leaders, Massimo Cacciari, warned on Saturday that the Democratic Left risks its own schism.

Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi has been jockeying to seize the party's leadership as well as position himself for an eventual run for the premiership. But he has also reached out to disenchanted moderates among Berlusconi's forces, a strategy that has alienated more left-leaning figures in the party who got their start in what was once the West's largest Communist party.

The 77-year-old Berlusconi pitched for a broad moderate alliance in a speech to stalwarts in the recently resurrected Forza Italia, the populist movement he began two decades ago to propel himself into politics.

After speaking non-stop for more than 90 minutes, Berlusconi seemed to run out of steam. Italian news reports said his personal doctors handed him a glass of water, then he leaned on one of his security men as he left the podium and took a seat.