ROME (AP) — Silvio Berlusconi is battling to keep his Forza Italia party together after recent high-profile defections have left his camp scrambling to show a united front ahead of May regional elections.
The fissures are the latest blow to the three-time premier, who despite some recent legal victories has been unable to reboot Forza Italia and bring it out of fourth place in the polls, taking about 12 percent to 13 percent of the vote.
First, longtime Berlusconi loyalist Sandro Bondi quit the party. Then Saturday, Berlusconi's candidate for Puglia's governor defected to a dissident faction headed by another onetime ally, Raffaele Fitto.
In a blistering blog post Saturday, Fitto said some 9 million Forza Italia voters were "fleeing" because "we are in a party without a serious and credible political line."
"There's a bunker mentality around Silvio Berlusconi, where a handful of self-proclaimed leaders make decisions about people, and worse, policy," he wrote.
The billionaire media mogul landed on Italy's political scene in 1994 and dominated it for two decades until a 2013 tax fraud conviction resulted in him being kicked out of the Senate.
He continued leading Forza Italia while carrying out his sentence — community service at a home for the aged — but struggled to keep it from coming apart at the seams as he negotiated a now-broken pact with center-left Premier Matteo Renzi on crucial reform issues.
Berlusconi got a boost last month when Italy's highest court upheld his acquittal in the "bunga bunga" sex-for-hire case, but he remains under investigation in a related case alleging he paid off "bunga bunga" witnesses.
As he has denied wrongdoing on the legal front, he has sought to rally his allies and demand loyalty ahead of May regional elections. On Friday, he gathered loyalists to his Milan estate to exchange Easter greetings and warned that displays of division will only be used by Forza Italia's opponents for political gain.
Those who decide to leave, he said in comments reported by the ANSA news agency, "must settle accounts in their conscience, but they should at the very least be quiet."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield