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Italian minister quits as election battle lines start to emerge

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's regional affairs minister resigned on Wednesday, dealing a blow to his center-right party, which governs in Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni's coalition, as battle lines begin to be drawn for elections due early next year.

Enrico Costa announced his departure as minister and, presumably, his resignation from the small Popular Alternative (AP) headed by Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, who left former premier Silvio Berlusconi's party to back Gentiloni's predecessor, Enrico Letta, in 2013.

Costa's vocal opposition in recent weeks to government campaigns for legislation regarding both the penal system and citizenship for immigrants had led to widespread speculation he would step down.

"I cannot pretend not to see the ranks of people who can discern a conflict between my role and my way of thinking," he wrote in a letter to Gentiloni that was later shared with media outlets. "And as I do not want to create problems for the government, I give up my role and I keep my way of thinking."

Gentiloni said in a statement he had received the letter and would temporarily assume Costa's responsibilities.

The right wing of Italian politics is split into several competing factions. A general election is set for next spring, and, after several failed attempts at electoral reform, votes are likely to be assigned using a system of proportional representation.

Polls suggest that will lead to a fragmented parliament where no party has enough votes to govern alone. That means small groups like AP could have a more important role in propping up bigger rivals.

Alfano brushed off the news, saying in a statement, "I thought he resigned a couple of days ago ... We understand that people who can't hack it make different choices."

Mayoral elections held last month suggested that if the right-wing groups came together they would be a force to be reckoned with at the general election.

(Reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio, writing by Isla Binnie)