ROME (Reuters) - In the land of Niccolo Machiavelli, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Italian parliament should be riven by intrigue, treachery and double-dealing.
But even by the standards of the cunning Renaissance diplomat, the current legislature has set a new benchmark for political machinations, with more than a fifth of all parliamentarians changing party affiliation in just two years.
Some 116 of the 315 senators elected in 2013 have swapped political colors, while in the lower chamber 106 out of 630 lawmakers have switched parties, shifting the balance of power in favor of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Some parliamentarians have altered allegiances multiple times in search of the right home, meaning there have been some 308 registered mutations since 2013, against 261 during the whole five years of the previous parliament.
The game of political musical chairs highlights the confused state of Italian politics, especially on the center-right, where former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has lost his position as undisputed leader and no strong alternative has emerged.
It also reveals deeper undercurrents at play, with protest parties popping up, political newbies struggling to find their way and the old order stumbling.
"This is the changing nature of politics," said Roberto D'Alimonte, politics professor at Luiss University in Rome. "It is a period of transition. We are seeing a de-alignment, which will eventually become a re-alignment."
Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, in government for a total 10 years between 1994 and 2011, has seen the largest hemorrhaging, with 49 senators and 35 lower house deputies deserting his group, many of them gravitating toward Renzi.
One such unit has coalesced around Senator Denis Verdini, a former confidant of Berlusconi who quit Forza Italia in July. His nascent group, which already counts 12 in the Senate and 11 in the lower house, has started to vote with Renzi's coalition, albeit with no formal accord in place.
Verdini's sudden conversion to Renzi's cause came at an opportune moment for the government, which is struggling to muster a majority for its constitutional reform drive.
The abrupt conversion has led to accusations of murky, underhand dealings, which have been denied by both sides. But in looking to attract more deserters, Verdini openly admits that his move is driven by power lust rather than ideology.
"...I am a taxi. Do you want to stay in power? Then only I can carry you between Berlusconi and Matteo (Renzi) in 10 minutes," Verdini told La Repubblica newspaper.
There has been turmoil across Italy's political spectrum.
Some of the groups that stood in 2013 imploded soon after the election, such as former prime minister Mario Monti's Civic Choice, whose 46 parliamentarians fell into the arms of others.
Another newcomer, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, won 163 seats in the two houses of parliament. It has since lost 36 lawmakers -- some of whom were expelled over policy rows, while others resigned.
"We were catapulted into this parliament without any political experience. We were just normal citizens," said Paola De Pin, a senator elected on the 5-Star ticket who has now changed groups four times before settling in with the Greens.
She rejected any suggestion of frivolity, arguing that she rode into parliament on the back of a raucous protest movement that was opposed to traditional politics. Once in the Senate, she felt she had to be more responsible and constructive.
"Outside you can play, but inside an institution such as this the games must end," she told Reuters.
Some see the lack of party loyalty as part of a general decline in political values.
In the post-war period, the Christian Democrat and Communist Party dominated the political landscape, providing their members with a clear, powerful identity. Nowadays, parliamentarians can build their own brand on sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
"It is not the fault of this parliament. Politics is losing its power. It's losing its authority in the age of social media," said Deborah Bergamini, a Forza Italia lawmaker who has stuck with her party.
Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall