By Angelo Amante and Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi could suffer mass defections from his Forza Italia group if it performs badly in next month's EU elections, putting the very future of the group at risk, party politicians said.
Any fragmentation of Forza Italia would reinforce the position of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the rightist League, as undisputed leader of Italy's conservative bloc, and potentially strengthen the government in parliament.
It would also almost certainly trigger Berlusconi’s retreat from frontline politics and open the way for a new leadership to try to rebuild the once dominant moderate, centre-right, now under siege from eurosceptic nationalist groups.
Berlusconi's political obituary has been written repeatedly in the past, only for the 82-year-old media tycoon to defy the naysayers and reclaim a central role in Italian public life.
But with his party's polling numbers in a prolonged decline and with his once-junior partner, the League, now Italy's most popular party, Forza Italia veterans are growing anxious.
"For our future it's very important that we get at least 10 percent at the European election," said a senior Forza Italia lawmaker and former minister who asked not to be named.
"Below that psychological threshold people will jump ship and try to join up with the League. It's Newton's rule of gravity, larger forces pull in little ones," he told Reuters.
Opinion polls since the start of April have put the party at anywhere between 8.7 and 12.1 percent, down from 14 percent it took in the 2018 national election and compared to a 30.5-35.7 percent banding for the League.
"If Forza Italy is unable to redefine its leadership and its agenda, it runs big risks," Roberto Weber, head of the Ixe polling institute, told Reuters.
Although the League and Forza Italia ran together in last year's ballot, their relationship has soured since Salvini abandoned his allies and formed a coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement -- Berlusconi's bete noire.
The two groups still stand united in local elections, but the League has suggested it might not tie the knot again at a national level, worried that being associated with the elderly, out-of-mode Berlusconi would dent its newfound popularity.
"The longer we govern with 5-Star, the more it enters the public conscience and it would be hard to understand why the League would run with the centre-right," said Riccardo Molinari, the League's parliamentary party leader in the lower house.
That League might nonetheless be interested in signing up disenchanted Forza Italia politicians, especially in the south where it is looking to extend its reach. The nationalist Brothers of Italy, another longtime Berlusconi ally, also appears eager to cannibalise its partner.
Italian politicians have a long tradition of switching parties -- in the last legislature almost 350 of the 945 parliamentarians changed sides for various reasons. They also have a habit of abandoning sinking ships.
Molinari laughed when asked if the League might be tempted to try to lure away Forza Italia lawmakers, particularly in the Senate where the coalition majority is in single digits.
"I think they might be tempted to join us. It is clear that there are lots of elected politicians from lots of parties that want to join the League," he said.
A Forza Italia senator, who declined to be named, agreed: "Lawmakers have to deal with their survival instinct," he said.
Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni is already poaching Forza Italia members and will put forward four ex-Berlusconi men as candidates for her own party in the May 26 EU vote.
"Berlusconi's political project has come to an end," said Stefano Maullu, a member of the European parliament, who had been a member of Forza Italia for 24 years before switching to Brothers of Italy last November.
Meloni is working with one of Forza Italia's best known faces, Giovanni Toti, the governor of the northern region of Liguria, with an eye to creating a newlook party after the European elections, political sources said.
Brothers of Italy is on around 5 percent in the polls but hopes to boost this number by siphoning away disaffected Berlusconi stalwarts and thereby broaden its voter base.
A newly minted group would be allied to the League in future elections, but would not join the coalition because 5-Star did not want to broaden the ruling alliance, sources said.
Another source in Forza Italia, who declined to be named, said she expected Berlusconi would finally take a step back if next month's vote went badly, with model-turned-politician Mara Carfagna a leading contender to take the reins.
Berlusconi created Forza Italia 25 years ago and despite repeated legal woes and health alarms, he has never shown any sign of wanting to relinquish control or retire from politics.
Although he is standing in next month's European election, there are nonetheless signs that the end of an era is nearing.
Last month Il Giornale newspaper, which is controlled by the Berlusconi family, announced it was closing its newsroom in Rome -- the epicentre of Italian politics -- and refocusing on the business capital Milan.
Berlusconi told reporters this month that he was looking into the matter and had no other comment to make.
"When Berlusconi was strong something like this would never have happened," said a journalist with the paper, who declined to be named because of ongoing union negotiations.
(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones; editing by Anna Willard)