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FILE PHOTO: 5-Star movement leader Luigi Di Maio speaks during the final rally for a regional election in Palermo, Italy, November 3, 2017. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - The leader of Italy's far-right Northern League said on Thursday he was suspending contacts with his main political ally, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, because of a disagreement over how tough courts should be on murderers and rapists.
The public fight over law and order delighted the rightists' opponents just as campaigning picked up ahead of a national election that look certain to be held in early March.
"I always said the (right) as a coalition didn't exist," said Luigi Di Maio, the prime ministerial candidate of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. "We are getting ever closer to government."
The right bloc, which includes Berlusconi's Forza Italia! (Go Italy), is ahead in the polls, with 5-Star in second place. Pollsters predict no-one will win an outright majority, raising the spectre of political instability in the euro zone's third-largest economy.
Northern League leader Matteo Salvini has regularly sparred with Berlusconi, but his anger bubbled over this week after Forza Italia lawmakers voted against efforts to prevent courts from offering sentence reductions for murder and rape.
"We are receiving hundreds of calls and emails from men and women angry and disappointed by Forza Italia's astonishing decision to protect rapists and murderers," Salvini was quoted as saying by AGI news agency.
"As far as we are concerned ... we are suspending all our contacts and discussions with Forza Italia and Berlusconi until there is an official clarification," he added.
Berlusconi promised to talk to Salvini shortly, saying he was unsure why his parliamentarians had spurned the reform.
Support for the right bloc has risen steadily in recent months with Berlusconi returning to frontline politics after years of sex and finance scandals.
However he has failed to paper over divisions between himself and Salvini who has pushed the Northern League to the far-right of European politics, aligning himself with Marine Le Pen's National Front in France.
Whereas the right is committed to running together in the forthcoming election, the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has split from its traditional leftist allies, who have refused to form any electoral alliance.
"(The right) will argue before, during and, above all, after the election, but on the day itself they will pretend to be united to scrape together a few more seats," PD leader Matteo Renzi wrote on Facebook on Thursday.
"This is pure hypocrisy because everyone knows the truth but pretends not to see."
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)