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By Naomi O'Leary
ROME, Feb 20 (Reuters) - An Italian anti-corruption party that threatened to divert votes away from Silvio Berlusconi's centre right was thrown into disarray on Wednesday when its leader resigned after admitting he had claimed false academic credentials.
Oscar Giannino, leader of the pro-business Stop the Decline party, stepped down days before next weekend's election, saying he did not have the masters' degree that he had claimed in a television interview, as well as two undergraduate degrees credited to him in online biographies.
"I am permanently stepping down as party leader. The damage to me from inoffensive though serious private lies must not harm Stop the Decline," Giannino, known for his eccentric style of dress and full beard, said in a tweet.
It is probably too late for Giannino to withdraw from the vote, but his resignation means he will give up his seat if elected.
The group had just 1.7 percent of the vote according to the final poll by SWG pollsters before a pre-electoral polling blackout on Feb. 9, but their clean-cut image had been credited with eroding support for scandal-plagued Berlusconi in the key swing region of Lombardy.
Berlusconi had repeatedly called on Giannino not to divert votes from his centre-right coalition. His centre-left opponents have also called for small parties not to split the vote.
Berlusconi was trailing the centre left by around five points, according to the last polls before the election.
(See here for a graphic on Italy's tightly-fought Senate race http://link.reuters.com/suf26t)
The case, which could add to voters' disillusionment with a political class long mired in scandals, echoes similar controversies in Germany, where several politicians have been stripped of doctorates for plagiarism.
The controversy arose after Giannino referred to having a master's degree from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, ranked among the world's top schools, in a video interview with daily newspaper La Repubblica in early February.
Shortly after the interview, party founder Luigi Zingales, who teaches finance and entrepreneurship at the same university, announced on Facebook he had quit the party after discovering "by chance" that qualifications Giannino claimed in the interview and in an online biography were false.
"In Italy, where every day a CEO or politician may be jailed for corruption, a lie on TV may seem a pardonable mistake. But for me it is not," Zingales wrote.
"Italians are desperate for leaders they can trust ... The only way to protect oneself is to start at the very top."
In a television interview on Tuesday, Giannino said an intern had written one inaccurate biography, and his own televised references to a master's at the University of Chicago in fact referred to a course in English he had taken there.
In a statement posted on Facebook, he said he had never falsely claimed qualifications to advance his career, but apologised "for every possible misunderstanding". (Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Barry Moody and Andrew Roche)