By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Angelino Alfano may have changed the future of Italian politics by leading the internal party revolt that thwarted Silvio Berlusconi's attempt to bring down the country's coalition government.
Few thought he had it in him. The 42-year-old former Christian Democrat from Sicily was considered so loyal to Berlusconi that his name had become almost a by-word for subservience.
"Alfano Betrays" screamed the front page banner headline of Berlusconi's family newspaper Il Giornale on Wednesday. It seemed to sum up Berlusconi's shock that his long-time protege had turned against him like Brutus in a Shakespearian tragedy.
Chubby, balding and affable, Alfano has always presented himself as the moderate and reassuring face of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL), which has become increasingly divided into so-called hawks and doves.
"Alfano is good but he lacks that extra something," Berlusconi said of his uncharismatic party secretary last year, in comments that have come back to haunt the ageing leader.
Many commentators were sceptical when rumours began this week that a group of PDL dissidents intent on defying Berlusconi's orders to bring down Enrico Letta's government wanted Alfano to lead them, but this time the eternal number two broke the link with the leader who had made his career.
"Today Alfano proved he does have that extra something and he can be the leader of a new center-right in Italy," a senior PDL lawmaker told Reuters, asking not to be named.
A lawyer by training, Alfano joined Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy!) movement in the mid-1990s and quickly developed a power base in Sicilian local politics. Little was seen of him on the national stage until Berlusconi named him justice minister in his fourth government in 2008.
That ministry was a crucial one for Berlusconi, who was already embroiled in a series of court cases. Alfano led fiercely contested efforts to save Berlusconi, including a bill giving legal immunity to the prime minister and other top institutional figures, which was finally thrown out by the consitutional court.
Alfano, a solid television debater who seldom loses his cool, became one of Italy's best-known politicians, but as his star rose nationally he also began to make enemies within an increasingly divided PDL.
He remained loyal to Berlusconi when the co-founder of the PDL, Gianfranco Fini, led a revolt in 2010 which weakened Berlusconi's government but eventually condemned Fini and his followers to the political wilderness.
Alfano was never considered either strong or independent and when Berlusconi named him PDL national secretary in 2011 it was widely seen as an appointment of the most obedient and unthreatening lieutenant he could find.
Alfano's reputation as an ineffectual sidekick reached its height in the run-up to this February's inconclusive elections.
As the price of a deal with the pro-autonomy Northern League, Berlusconi announced that he would not run as prime minister and Alfano was the party's candidate instead.
Yet with opinion polls increasingly pointing to an electoral debacle, Berlusconi then ripped the campaigning reins out of Alfano's hands and staged a dramatic recovery that almost ended in victory.
Alfano was derided by opponents on the center-right almost as much as on the center-left and famously dubbed "a successful loser" by party rival Nicola Cosentino.
It remains to be seen if Alfano's defiance of Berlusconi will allow him to become a leader in his own right.
Critics point out that he only made the move when Berlusconi was at his weakest, already crippled by a conviction for tax fraud and facing a ban from parliament.
Yet whatever the future holds for Alfano, he has probably hastened the 77-year-old Berlusconi's political demise and, by winning the battle against the PDL hawks, staked a strong claim to becoming his successor on the center-right.
Considering Alfano is 42, Letta 47 and Matteo Renzi, the rising star on the center-left, is just 38, that would at least be a generational change at the top of Italy's politics.
(additional reporting by Paolo Biondi and Steve Scherer; editing by Giles Elgood)