- Associated Press - Sunday, November 7, 2010

ROME | 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 off 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. Berlusconi, 74, also has seen his fragile center-right alliance slowly disintegrate over the past months — with his one-time key ally Gianfranco Fini now openly suggesting that Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 Mr. Berlusconi. “I hope this last phrase about gays will help us to get out of the tunnel. I feel ashamed.”

Already engulfed by the Ruby scandal, Mr. Berlusconi on Thursday blasted what he called a campaign of “mud based on lies” following new allegations of sex with a prostitute.

Prosecutors in Palermo confirmed to the Associated Press that they had recently interrogated Nadia Macri, a call girl who reportedly claims Mr. Berlusconi paid her $14,000 for sex during an orgy at his villa in Sardinia two years ago.

According to transcripts of the interrogation published by newspapers Thursday, Ms. Macri said up to 30 women, some as young as 17, were invited to the villa for a party. In the bedrooms, there was marijuana for them to smoke, she reportedly said.

Mr. Berlusconi, speaking to leaders of his party Thursday, said he will remain in office despite “the daily unfounded attacks” as long as he has the support of Italians.

Mr. 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 Ruby scandal arose when Mr. Berlusconi admitted he intervened to secure the release from police custody of the Moroccan girl who previously had been at his villa outside Milan. The girl — known publicly by only one name — 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 Mr. Berlusconi’s original intervention was an inappropriate abuse of power.

Mr. Berlusconi assured supporters last week that this government still had the majority and would last the remaining half of its five-year term. But the climate is volatile, particularly after his split with Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Berlusconi to zip his lips and expressed hope the premier could reach a new accord with Mr. Fini to end the political turmoil.

If not, he said, Italy should return to the polls.

But Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 now is having trouble passing legislation that would shield him as a sitting premier from further legal woes.

Mr. 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.

“The sooner he leaves, the better,” 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.”

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