By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - The Italian parliament's anti-mafia committee released the names of 17 local election candidates suspected of graft or organized crime links on Friday -- an embarrassment for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi before local elections on Sunday.
The highest profile name was Vincenzo De Luca, the candidate from Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) for president of the southern Campania region, who is accused of corruption and has a conviction for abuse of office.
Around 22 million voters go to the polls on Sunday in seven of Italy's 20 regions and more than 1,000 municipalities. The elections are the biggest test for Renzi since the center-left PD triumphed in last year's European elections with 41 percent of the vote.
Counting on signs of economic recovery after three years of recession, Renzi is hoping for a strong result that he can claim as a mandate to continue his reform agenda and overcome resistance from both opposition parties and left-wingers in his own party.
However, the scandal surrounding De Luca in the crime-ridden region around Naples has overshadowed the campaign and taken some of the shine off improved economic data on Friday. That data confirmed the economy had returned to growth in the first quarter of the year.
"This campaign has been more about the quality of the class of leaders and the candidates than it has been about policies," committee chairwoman Rosy Bindi, a fierce critic of Renzi on the left of the PD, told reporters.
De Luca, a powerful local party baron, was named with 12 other "impresentabili" or "unpresentable" candidates in Campania and four others in the southeastern region of Puglia.
Renzi has backed De Luca and apparently did not expect his name to feature on the list, saying the day before it was released that he was sure they would all be minor figures and that none would be elected.
After the names were announced, De Luca said he planned to take Bindi to court, while Renzi accused her of waging a political campaign.
"It hurts me that the anti-mafia committee is being used to settle scores inside the party," he told supporters at a rally in the coastal town of Ancona.
The names, all of whom have been sent to trial in the past for mafia-related offences or crimes such as racketeering or money-laundering, came from both center-left and center-right parties and were combed from the names of 4,000 candidates.
The announcement will not stop the candidates standing in Sunday's election, although De Luca may be banned from taking office because of a conviction for abuse of office when he was mayor of the southern town of Salerno.
Bindi said the list would allow voters to make informed choices.
"Our hope is that we have succeeded in contributing to creating clarity," she told reporters. "Italian electors are able to make up their minds."
Opinion polls, which have a relatively poor record in Italy, suggest the center-left should win in Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Puglia. The anti-immigrant, euro-sceptic Northern League is likely to hold on to power in the northeastern region of Veneto.
Liguria, where the PD vote may be weakened by a breakaway left-wing candidate, is in doubt, as is Campania, where De Luca is in a tight race with the center-right incumbent.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Larry King)