Belfast Telegraph

Notes on a scandal

For years Silvio Berlusconi seemed bulletproof. Now, as revelations continue, the Italian prime minister's political rivals are scenting blood. Michael Day reports

The Catholic Church-backed National Conference for the Family began in Milan this week - with one noticeable absence. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had been due to open proceedings, was bumped from the schedule by officials who realised it would be like having Attila the Hun introducing a peace conference.

Donatella Ceralli of CIAI, the children and young people's charity, put it bluntly: "Without Berlusconi, the atmosphere will be a lot calmer.''

The premier probably can't remember what calm feels like. Ever alert to the threat of prosecution on corruption charges, steeling himself for a cataclysmically messy divorce and humiliated on a daily basis by the endless string of sex revelations, it's a wonder he hasn't already fled the country.

The tale of Ruby - or Karima el-Mahroug - the 17-year-old belly dancer who received €7,000 (£6,000) and jewellery at two of the premier's parties, kicked off the current media feeding frenzy on Berlusconi's exploits.

But if the prime minister looks back at one event that unleashed the torrent of allegations it is probably the unfortunate decision in May 2009 to attend the birthday of 18-year-old underwear model Noemi Letizia.

We learnt that she called him 'daddy'. His wife of nearly 20 years, Veronica Lario, accused him of "consorting with minors". His suggested predilection for girls young enough to be his grandchildren brought a new sense of grubbiness to the story.

Drugs figured once again in the very latest reports - from TV showgirl Nadia Macri - of dope-smoking on Berlusconi's private jet.

She also provided her 'personal services' to the premier at €10,000-a-time in Sardinia last year and at his home near Milan this April.

There were even suspicions of sympathy for Berlusconi when, in June last year, the taped recordings of his pillow talk with call girl Patrizia D'Addario came to light.

The sense that someone he had treated well had returned the favour by biting him, was amplified when Ms D'Addario followed up the tapes with a toe-curling kiss-and-tell book.

Centre-right rival Gianfranco Fini has spoken of the "moral decay" caused by a "loss of decorum and rigour in the behaviour of those who, as public figures, should set an example".

But Berlusconi's response - "If you don't like it, do something about it" - was born of a prime minister who knows that the opposition is even weaker than him.

If Mr Fini withdraws his parliamentary support and precipitates an election now, he'll get the blame for bringing risky political uncertainty to weigh on Italy's faltering economy.

The Press (at least the section not owned by Berlusconi) and opposition politicians might take comfort from seeing the septuagenarian mogul squirm.

But nobody believes that more allegations about his tawdry sex life will cause the government to fall. How could they?

If abuse-of-power allegations and on-the-hoof legislation to protect himself from prosecution haven't been enough to force him out, a sex-scandal is unlikely to do so.

Cultural commentators often claim that many ordinary people admire Berlusconi for his machismo.

But the pundits are missing the point: Berlusconi is unpopular. People are now sufficiently repelled by his antics and the failure of his government to improve their lives that his rating has fallen below 30% for the first time.

Nichi Vendola, the rising star of Italy's Left, said during a political rally in Milan that he was willing to work with the centre-left Democratic Party to offer a viable alternative to Berlusconi.

A new centre-left coalition might start preparations for the general election, which is likely in the new year, by keeping in mind the phrase used by that libidinous star of American politics, Bill Clinton: "It's the economy, stupid".

Some critics have claimed that Berlusconi has, ever since he entered politics, appealed to many voters by tacitly encouraging tax evasion. Prosecutors, investigating the offshore financial activities of the prime minister's media empire, have accused him of leading by example - though Berlusconi has always denied wrong-doing.

But if people don't even have jobs - and six million Italians are now without fixed work - then avoiding tax isn't even an issue.

Emma Marcegaglia, the president of the employers' association Confindustria, a natural ally for a conservative PM, has declared that the country is "paralysed" and the government "absent".

The big question, then, is how, or when, will Italy's farcical situation, which is proving so amusing for foreigners, but so galling for millions of Italians, actually end? Italy's constitutional court will pronounce next month on the constitutionality of his current, temporary immunity law; if it overturns it, Berlusconi will again have to answer court summonses on corruption charges.

As political pundit Professor James Walston, at the American University in Rome, noted in a recent blog, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a desperate Berlusconi would do a runner.

It would even seem like the logical conclusion for Berlusconi to follow in the footsteps of his corrupt mentor, prime minister Bettino Craxi, who fled to exile in Tunisia 20 years ago to avoid jail.

Berlusconi has a luxury villa in Antigua, where he could party by the sea until he finally drops.

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