By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Forza Italia, the center-right party of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, was hit by a wave of desertions on Wednesday, raising questions about its political future.
Eight Forza Italia parliamentarians, including an ex-minister, announced they were leaving the group just days after two other party heavyweights said they were quitting.
The high-level desertions have laid bare the strife at the heart of a once-dominant party, whose support has subsided as Berlusconi struggles to revive his floundering fortunes.
"Forza Italia has exhausted its reforming zeal," three of the defectors, Peppe Ruvolo, Pino Galati and Saverio Romano, wrote in a statement, saying the party was now at the whim of populist trends.
Several party fugitives look set to join the parliamentary ranks of Denis Verdini, one of Berlusconi's closest aides, who walked away from Forza Italia in July and has created a new group in the Senate. That has been taken as a sign he is ready to work with center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Other renegades said they would join the ranks of independent parliamentarians.
Forza Italia led an alliance that won almost half of the vote at the 2008 general election, but its support has fallen sharply since the scandal-plagued Berlusconi resigned as prime minister in 2011 at the height of a European debt crisis.
Berlusconi himself was expelled from the Senate in 2013 after he was convicted of tax fraud and his interest in politics has appeared to wane since then.
An opinion poll published in la Repubblica newspaper earlier this month put support for Forza Italia at 11 percent, its lowest level since Berlusconi formed the party 20 years ago - making it just the fourth largest political force in Italy.
Berlusconi has refused to be drawn on whether he will accept overtures from his old ally the Northern League and forge a new electoral alliance, with newspapers suggesting he was wary of playing second fiddle to a once junior partner.
Following Wednesday's mass walkout, he promptly canceled a meeting with Forza Italia senators scheduled for Thursday. Party leaders in the upper house accused their former political friends of selling out.
"An attempt to crush the center-right is underway, with low, sinister interests at play that will not bring the perpetrators any advantage," Paolo Romani, the head of Forza Italia in the Senate, wrote in an open letter to the Italian president.
The center-left government has a majority of less than 10 in the 320-seat Senate and has denied accusations it has struck any underhand deal with Verdini.
Bucking the trend, Nunzia De Girolamo, a parliamentarian who quit Berlusconi's ranks in 2013 in an initial wave of desertions, said this week she was returning to Forza Italia.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)