RPT-Alfano turns on his master in bid to lead Italy's right


* Alfano led centre-right revolt against Berlusconi

* Was considered Berlusconi's most loyal lieutenant

* Shakes off reputation as weak and indecisive

By Gavin Jones

ROME, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Angelino Alfano may have changed thefuture of Italian politics by leading the internal party revoltthat thwarted Silvio Berlusconi's attempt to bring down thecountry's coalition government.

Few thought he had it in him. The 42-year-old formerChristian Democrat from Sicily was considered so loyal toBerlusconi that his name had become almost a by-word forsubservience.

"Alfano Betrays" screamed the front page banner headline ofBerlusconi's family newspaper Il Giornale on Wednesday. Itseemed to sum up Berlusconi's shock that his long-time protegehad turned against him like Brutus in a Shakespearian tragedy.

Chubby, balding and affable, Alfano has always presentedhimself as the moderate and reassuring face of Berlusconi'sPeople of Freedom party (PDL), which has become increasinglydivided 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 thisweek that a group of PDL dissidents intent on defyingBerlusconi's orders to bring down Enrico Letta's governmentwanted Alfano to lead them, but this time the eternal number twobroke the link with the leader who had made his career.

"Today Alfano proved he does have that extra something andhe can be the leader of a new centre-right in Italy," a seniorPDL lawmaker told Reuters, asking not to be named.

A lawyer by training, Alfano joined Berlusconi's ForzaItalia (Go Italy!) movement in the mid-1990s and quicklydeveloped a power base in Sicilian local politics. Little wasseen of him on the national stage until Berlusconi named himjustice minister in his fourth government in 2008.

That ministry was a crucial one for Berlusconi, who wasalready embroiled in a series of court cases. Alfano ledfiercely contested efforts to save Berlusconi, including a billgiving legal immunity to the prime minister and other topinstitutional figures, which was finally thrown out by theconsitutional court.


Alfano, a solid television debater who seldom loses hiscool, became one of Italy's best-known politicians, but as hisstar rose nationally he also began to make enemies within anincreasingly divided PDL.

He remained loyal to Berlusconi when the co-founder of thePDL, Gianfranco Fini, led a revolt in 2010 which weakenedBerlusconi's government but eventually condemned Fini and hisfollowers to the political wilderness.

Alfano was never considered either strong or independent andwhen Berlusconi named him PDL national secretary in 2011 it waswidely seen as an appointment of the most obedient andunthreatening lieutenant he could find.

Alfano's reputation as an ineffectual sidekick reached itsheight in the run-up to this February's inconclusive elections.

As the price of a deal with the pro-autonomy NorthernLeague, Berlusconi announced that he would not run as primeminister and Alfano was the party's candidate instead.

Yet with opinion polls increasingly pointing to an electoraldebacle, Berlusconi then ripped the campaigning reins out ofAlfano's hands and staged a dramatic recovery that almost endedin victory.

Alfano was derided by opponents on the centre-right almostas much as on the centre-left and famously dubbed "a successfulloser" by party rival Nicola Cosentino.

It remains to be seen if Alfano's defiance of Berlusconiwill allow him to become a leader in his own right.

Critics point out that he only made the move when Berlusconiwas at his weakest, already crippled by a conviction for taxfraud and facing a ban from parliament.

Yet whatever the future holds for Alfano, he has probablyhastened the 77-year-old Berlusconi's political demise and, bywinning the battle against the PDL hawks, staked a strong claimto becoming his successor on the centre-right.

Considering Alfano is 42, Letta 47 and Matteo Renzi, therising star on the centre-left, is just 38, that would at leastbe a generational change at the top of Italy's politics.

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