ROME Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has dropped allies accused of corruption and mafia connections as election candidates, in a bid to shake off some of the scandal dogging his party.
Nicola Cosentino, a former junior economy minister whose power base is the heartland of the Camorra - the Naples mafia - was among a handful of members of parliament deselected from the party list for a general election on February 24-25.
"It was a very painful decision," Berlusconi told his own Italia 1 television station, blaming the need to drop Cosentino on "politically biased prosecutors".
Cosentino has denied any wrongdoing and party officials said he was dropped only to avoid the issue being exploited by electoral rivals.
The move is a political gamble that may win the People of Freedom (PDL) party some votes but also risks losing support among the local power base of deselected politicians.
"This choice does not imply a judgement that those involved are guilty," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, head of the PDL group in the lower house of parliament.
"I continue to believe that Nicola Cosentino is innocent and has been the target of an extremely harsh campaign by media and judges," he said.
Cosentino, who was forced to resign from Berlusconi's last government in 2011 over an influence-peddling scandal, is under investigation for association with the Camorra in the Casal di Principe region near Naples.
Berlusconi, himself on trial charged with paying for sex with a minor as well as tax fraud, has been under pressure to clean up his party.
The Corriere della Sera daily said Berlusconi's office had seen projections that estimated the deselection of such candidates could add 2 percentage points to the PDL's vote to build on a strong recovery seen since the start of the year.
A poll last week by the SWG institute showed Berlusconi's alliance between the PDL and the Northern League party, on 27.2 percent, was still lagging the centre-left bloc fronted by Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, on 33 percent.
Both the Democratic Party and outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti's centrist bloc have pledged to present only candidates not under investigation or facing criminal charges.
Berlusconi has long defended Cosentino and others now excluded from the PDL's electoral list, but growing public anger with corrupt politicians has forced him to act.
However the move risks causing rifts in the party, where Cosentino and some of the others command strong local loyalty.
Cosentino, who faces the threat of immediate arrest without his parliamentary immunity, said he felt "deep friendship" for Berlusconi but he made it clear that he had not gone willingly.
"I did not step aside of my own accord, I did not renounce the candidacy on my own, I fought to the end," he told a news conference in Naples that was interrupted several times by cheers and applause from his supporters.
He blamed unnamed forces within the PDL for forcing him out and although he denied newspaper reports that he had come close to blows with Alfano, he had little but scorn for the party secretary, whom he labelled a "loser".
At least seven other former ministers or prominent allies, including four politicians also from the Naples region, have withdrawn or been dropped from the list presented by the PDL on Monday evening.
Also not returning to parliament is Marcello Dell'Utri, a senator from Sicily and one of Berlusconi's oldest associates, who is appealing a conviction for mafia association and has other convictions for tax fraud.
Under Italian electoral law, voters cannot vote for individuals but must choose a list of candidates presented by a party or coalition.
(Reporting By James Mackenzie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)