Monday, June 29, 2009

Silvio Berlusconi keeps smiling

Silvio Berlusconi keeps smiling as sex scandal gets deeper by the day
Prime minister attempts to carry on as normal despite further revelations
Tom Kington in Rome
The Guardian, Tuesday 23 June 2009

If Silvio Berlusconi fears four years of being a lame duck prime minister as a result of the sex scandal engulfing him, he was not showing it at the weekend as he went on a walkabout in Milan, kissing babies, discussing which AC Milan players he might sell and sketching out his political agenda to a crowd of admirers.

"He was talking about what plans he has for 2010; he clearly intends to ignore everything, waiting for it to blow over," said Raffaele De Mucci, a professor of political science at Luiss University in Rome.

Tom Kington: 'There is distinct unease among many of his allies' Link to this audio It is unlikely that it will blow over by the time the world's leaders arrive in Italy next month for the G8 conference. Magistrates in the southern city of Bari are pushing on with an investigation into a possible prostitution racket and are getting ready to question 30 women, some of whom are suspected to have been paid by a local businessman to attend five parties held by Berlusconi, La Repubblica reported yesterday.

One of the guests already questioned – model Barbara Montereale – has alleged that a paid escort, Patrizia D'Addario, slept with the prime minister on 4 November. Yesterday, Montereale released photographs she alleges she took as souvenirs in Berlusconi's bathroom and described the large number of eastern European women she says she met during a visit to his villa in Sardinia.

"They seemed at home, were on familiar terms with the prime minister and all called him Papi," she told La Repubblica, adding that she saw the girls dressed as Father Christmas in a video shown of an earlier party. "They were a bit jealous of each other and in competition to see who could get closer [to Berlusconi]."

Berlusconi's troubles with the opposite sex have advanced since May, when he fought against accusations of consorting with minors after attending the 18th birthday party of Noemi Letizia, an aspiring model who called the 72-year-old "Papi" during private conversations on the phone.

That was enough to push Berlusconi's wife to ask for a divorce. The Bari inquiry could go further and rattle the foundations of the Italian government, said De Mucci. "The fewer votes Berlusconi got in the EU elections, the noisy protests at his recent rallies, all showed a drop in his support because of the scandal," he said.

"Now his allies are disoriented, the electorate's faith in the governing class will be further weakened and he risks losing the political capital he built up with his handling of the Abruzzo earthquake and the Naples rubbish crisis."

De Mucci added that he was not surprised by Berlusconi's recent denouncements of the number of Chinese living in Prato, near Florence, and the number of Africans he saw in Milan.

"The shakier his authority, the more he will lean on the Northern League for support," he said, referring to the anti-immigrant party with which Berlusconi's Freedom People party is allied. "But I doubt he is on his way out. His own party would not continue to exist without him. They would have to reinvent itself and I don't see them doing that."

For the Italian opposition, the question is how vulnerable Berlusconi is to the girls to whom he has thrown open his doors open. Unsatisfied with being named a candidate in local elections for a party in Bari allied to Berlusconi, D'Addario revealed all to the Italian press, reportedly telling Montereale: "This is our moment; I will make him pay and we will become famous like Noemi."

Luigi Zanda, of the opposition Democratic party, said: "Berlusconi has said nothing about how blackmailable he is and the government is ignoring the question."

Judging by his baby kissing at the weekend, Berlusconi feels the scandal will wither. Sandro Bondi, his culture minister, went on the counterattack yesterday, saying that La Repubblica, the left-leaning newspaper that has kept the prime minister under pressure, was "the largest threat to our democracy".

In Rome, the result of the scandal appeared to be an equal stiffening of resolve among the Italians who love Berlusconi and those who loathe him.

"He's got skeletons in his cupboard, but scandals don't count here and he will stay put for his whole five years," said tobacconist Roberta Canini bitterly.

"What scandal?" retorted retired civil servant Eliza Baciocchi at a corner bar on the busy Corso Francia. "Berlusconi is a gentleman when it comes to the ladies and only magistrates and the left see fit to pry into his private life."

Carlo Maschi, a legal assistant, said Berlusconi should be forgiven for his behaviour because he was a businessman, not a politician. "Look at how he kept Angela Merkel waiting when he was on his cellphone. He is made like that and that is fine by me," he said.

It was left to a young women to challenge Berlusconi in Milan. "Ask him about the prostitutes," she yelled at the crowd surrounding the prime minister, before she was hustled away by police.

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