By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has dropped former allies accused of corruption and mafia association as election candidates, in a bid to shed the image of scandal that has dogged sections of his center-right party.
Late on Monday, Berlusconi's party secretary Angelino Alfano said Nicola Cosentino, a former junior economy minister whose power base is in the heartland of the Camorra or Naples mafia, would not return to parliament after the election.
Cosentino has denied any wrongdoing and party officials have said the decision was taken only to avoid the issue being exploited by electoral rivals.
"This choice does not imply a judgment that those involved are guilty," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, head of the PDL party group in the lower house of parliament.
"I continue to believe that Nicola Cosentino is innocent and has been the target of an extremely harsh campaign by media and judges," he said.
Cosentino, who was forced to resign from Berlusconi's last government in 2011 over an influence-peddling scandal, is under investigation for association with the Camorra in the Casal di Principe region near Naples.
Berlusconi, who is himself on trial over accusations of paying for sex with a minor as well as tax fraud, has been under heavy pressure to clean up his People of Freedom (PDL) party ahead of elections on February 24-25.
It is unclear what impact the decision will have on the vote but the Corriere della Sera daily said Berlusconi's office had seen projections which estimated it could add 2 percent to build on a strong recovery seen since the start of the year.
A poll last week by the SWG institute last week showed the center-left bloc led by Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani on 33 percent, ahead of Berlusconi's alliance between the PDL and the Northern League party on 27.2 percent.
Both the Democratic Party and outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti's centrist bloc have pledged to present only candidates not under investigation or facing criminal charges.
Berlusconi has long defended Cosentino and others who have also been excluded from the PDL's electoral list but growing public anger with corrupt politicians and a string of high-profile scandals, many involving the PDL, has forced him to act.
However the move risks causing ructions in the party, where Cosentino and some of the other parliamentarians now excluded, command strong local voter loyalty.
Italian newspapers reported that the decision was only taken after fierce resistance from Cosentino, who faces the threat of immediate arrest once he loses his parliamentary immunity. Some newspapers reported that he had almost come to blows with Alfano at a heated meeting over the weekend.
The move, which Italian newspapers speculated could cost Berlusconi heavily in Cosentino's home Campania region, follows several other high-profile exclusions of former allies.
At least seven other former ministers or prominent allies, including four politicians from the Naples region, have also been dropped from the list presented by Berlusconi's People of Freedom party on Monday evening.
Also not returning to parliament is Marcello Dell'Utri, a senator from Sicily and one of Berlusconi's oldest associates, who is appealing a conviction for mafia association and who has other convictions for tax fraud.
Under Italian electoral law, voters do not vote for individual candidates but must choose a single list put forward by a party or coalition.
(Reporting By James Mackenzie; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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