Forza Italia heavyweights jump ship, join Italy centrists

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By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Two senior members of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia group said on Friday they were joining the small centrist Azione party ahead of forthcoming elections, saying Italy's conservative bloc had become too extremist.

Maria Stella Gelmini and Mara Carfagna, both ministers in the outgoing government, announced their move at a news conference alongside the leader of Azione, Carlo Calenda, who is looking to drain votes from disaffected Forza Italia supporters.

Forza Italia was one of three parties that withdrew support from Prime Minister Mario Draghi's national unity administration last week, looking to cash in on favourable opinion polls which showed the rightist bloc would win a snap election.

The ballot is set for Sept. 25 and polls show Forza Italia and its allies, the far-right Brothers of Italy and League, are on course to win a clear majority.

However, support for Forza Italia is slipping, with some voters reportedly angry about its role in unseating the respected Draghi, and Calenda, a former businessman, is looking to draw moderates to his side.

"Is the election over? No. This right cannot win," Calenda said, portraying the rightist bloc as extremists under the sway of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

RUSSIAN TIES

Berlusconi and League leader Matteo Salvini have been very close to Putin in the past and Italian newspapers this week reported that both their parties have had contacts with the Russian embassy in recent weeks despite the war in Ukraine.

Berlusconi has denied talking to the Russian ambassador while the League has denied any wrongdoing.

Carfagna, a model-turned-politician, said she was glad to be joining a moderate political force. "I have the certainty of being in a party where no one will dream of plotting with Russia or with China to the detriment of the current government."

Latest opinion polls suggest Calenda could take 6% of the vote in September, just one percentage point behind Forza Italia.

However, Italy's election law favours parties that form broad alliances, leaving Calenda with a dilemma over whether to forge a pact with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) -- the second largest party in the country.

Such an alliance would boost the centre-left's chances of preventing a rightist triumph but it could also drive away wavering Forza Italia voters that Calenda wants to attract.

"If Calenda does not enter into a coalition with the PD, the centre-left will certainly be defeated," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a politics professor at Rome's Luiss University.

"His is the only party that can act as a magnet towards centre-right voters," he added.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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