ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Thursday he was dropping his candidate for mayor of Rome, underscoring the former leader's fading influence on the center right ahead of municipal elections in June.
The center-right parties have split bitterly over who to back in the capital, which is considered an important test for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Italy's other major cities will also vote in June, including Milan, Naples and Turin.
Berlusconi said his Forza Italia (Go Italy) party was withdrawing its support for Guido Bertolaso, a former head of the national civil protection agency, but would still not support the choice of its ally, the right-wing Northern League.
Instead, Berlusconi said he would back Alfio Marchini, an independent candidate from a wealthy Roman family that made its fortune in the construction industry, according to a statement.
Berlusconi said it was clear that Bertolaso, who was lagging in opinion polls, had no hope of success, and appealed to the Northern League and the smaller, far-right Brothers of Italy party to join forces behind Marchini.
"He is the only figure who can win" against the candidates of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and Renzi's center-left Democratic Party, Berlusconi said.
However, the appeal was immediately rejected by Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, who said his party would stick with its current candidate, the Brothers of Italy national leader Giorgia Meloni.
Four-times prime minister Berlusconi, who is 79, has appeared in steep political decline ever since he was convicted of tax fraud in 2013 and expelled from parliament, where he was a Senator.
Forza Italia has been overtaken by the Northern League as the largest party on the center-right and Berlusconi has lost his former status as the undisputed coalition leader.
Opinion polls suggest the favorite to win the mayoral vote is the 5-Star's candidate, Virginia Raggi, who hopes to benefit from a string of corruption scandals that have hit the city in recent years, sapping support from the traditional parties.
(Reporting By Gavin Jones, editing by Steve Scherer and Mark Trevelyan)