Alexa

Berlusconi's teflon touch in question

Berlusconi's teflon touch in question

Is this time different? Silvio Berlusconi has survived prostitution scandals, howling gaffes, and seamy courtroom dramas _ only to bounce back with a billion-dollar grin on his face.
Italians have taken to shrugging away their leader's misbehavior as the foibles of a man accustomed to "la dolce vita" _ the sweet life that they themselves aspire to.
But the tale of Ruby _ an underage Moroccan runaway whom Berlusconi freed from police custody _ has generated strong shudders that some predict could mark the beginning of the end of the media tycoon's political career.
For one thing, the scandal appears to raise the bar even of Berlusconi's ample capacity for mischief-making: many see it as a clear-cut case of abuse of power that would have swiftly spelled the end of any other leader of a Western democracy.
Instead of being chastened, Berlusconi shocked even the jaded Italian electorate by declaring it's "better to love beautiful girls than gays" _ adding homophobia to accusations of anti-Semitism stemming from the leader's recent quips about the Holocaust.
Berlusconi has also seen his fragile center-right alliance slowly disintegrate over the past months _ with his one-time key ally Gianfranco Fini now openly suggesting that Berlusconi step down. But while polls show his popularity is sagging and many see the Ruby episode as "serious," he retains much of his support among conservative voters while the opposition is divided.
"He may survive this one, but he's getting weaker and weaker," said Franco Pavoncello, professor of political science at John Cabot University. "This couldn't happen in normal, advanced democratic republics."
Berlusconi has succeeded largely because people see in him a reflection of Italian society itself. And his comment about girls and gays taps into a deep sexist and homophobic streak that runs through the country.
But many even in his traditional support groups now feel he's disgracing the nation.
"I'm disgusted," said Anna Sidozzi, 70, in an age bracket that has generally backed Berlusconi. "I hope this last phrase about gays will help us to get out of the tunnel. I feel ashamed."
Berlusconi argues that this is no time to bring down a government because of Italy's severe economic crisis. Critics say he's being self-serving. But it's true that an election could leave the country divided and rudderless at a crucial time _ a prospect many Italians fear.
The latest scandal arose when Berlusconi admitted he intervened to secure the release from police custody of the Moroccan girl who had previously been at his villa outside Milan. The girl, known publicly only as "Ruby," reportedly told prosecutors she attended dinners at the villa but denied having sex with the premier.
The Milan prosecutors office said after an investigation that the girl _ who was picked up by police for alleged theft _ had been correctly turned over to juvenile care. But news media said Wednesday that authorities are still investigating whether Berlusconi's original intervention was an inappropriate abuse of power.
Berlusconi assured supporters this week that this government still had a majority and would last the remaining half of its five-year term. But the climate is volatile, particularly after his split with Fini, who said the premier has embarrassed the country.
Respected political commentator Sergio Romano, in a front-page commentary Wednesday in the leading Corriere della Sera newspaper, offered support for Berlusconi. He listed some of his government's achievements, such as supporting overseas military missions and moves toward a federalist tax system, but also urged Berlusconi to zip his lips and expressed hope the premier could reach a new accord with Fini to end the political turmoil.
If not, he said, Italy should return to the polls.
But Berlusconi has shown no sign of toning down his rhetoric, blasting newspapers for publishing the stories about Ruby and again attacking the judiciary, which he depicts as leftists seeking to destroy him.
"There is a boulder that weighs on this country. The magistrates," he said.
Berlusconi has proclaimed his innocence in a number of investigations, including some that went to trial, over dealings in his sprawling business interests. The premier, who jumped into politics in 1994 by creating his own conservative party, has either been acquitted or had charges dropped because of the statute of limitations.
But his coalition is now having troubling passing legislation that would shield him as a sitting premier from further legal woes.
Berlusconi's relationship with an 18-year-old would-be model from Naples sparked a scandal last year that prompted his second wife to file for divorce. Soon after a call girl claimed she had spent a night with the premier and had tape recorded their encounter.
Newspapers said Wednesday that prosecutors have drawn up a report on alleged use of drugs and prostitutes at parties at Berlusconi's villa in Sardinia and sent it to the premier's home base in Milan.
"The sooner he leaves, the better is," said Fabio Natale, 42, a consultant for a cell phone company. "He's mixing up the power his office gives him with his private interests. He's mixing up his duties with his rights."