independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

The Italians love Silvio, even if no one else does

He is vulgar, repugnant -- and untouchable. Now the scandal-hit Italian prime minister is hoping to get his hands on even more power, writes Tobias Jones

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has joked that he is 'no saint' as the scandal involving call girls deepens with the release of a recording with one of the escort girls in question. Photo: Getty Images

In any normal country, Silvio Berlusconi would surely be dead and buried by now. In the past few months, he has been battered and bruised by a succession of scandals. It was discovered that he had been courting, to put it politely, 18-year-old Noemi Letizia and showering her with jewellery. He then lied, embarrassingly badly, about how he knew her (we still don't really know).

His wife has filed for divorce, saying he consorts with minors. Photographs have been published of orgiastic parties at his Sardinian villa that leave little to the imagination. It then emerged that there's a network of people who provide these women for the prime minister and, ahem, pay them for their services.

This week the smoking gun arrived: a recording of one of those escort girls, Patrizia D'Addario, being seduced, if that's the word, by Berlusconi. She didn't charge because Silvio promised to sort out a little planning issue for her -- something he has since denied.

One would have thought that such scandals would be enough to end his career, but Italy is no normal country and Berlusconi is no normal politician. He has, as always, come out fighting, saying "the Italians like me just the way I am". And he seems to be right. He's won three landslide elections and, despite the depths of a recession and the throes of these scandals, he enjoys approval ratings that most leaders would die for.

Bizarre as it may sound, he somehow manages to have his finger on the pulse of the nation. My Italian mother-in-law maintains that the majority of Italians have a mini-Silvio inside them to whom Berlusconi speaks directly. He is what they wish to be: a person with chutzpah in abundance. He's a man with his own, all-winning football team, who is rich beyond comprehension. He's someone who defies the ageing process and sleeps with a stream of beautiful women. In fact, when you ask Italians about this current scandal, many say, "So what?" or "Good for him".

Some, of course, find him vulgar and repugnant, but many more are admiring and even envious. Rather than damaging him, these revelations have allowed Berlusconi to present himself as a voracious, priapic leader, the sort of man who makes Casanova look chaste. It all adds, of course, to his popularity. That's why the first magazine to splash a "Berlusconi's harem" story two years ago was one of his own.

Even if he weren't so popular, there's the vexed question of how to get rid of him. Political parties that have abandoned his coalition in the past, such as the UDC, have sunk without trace, and of his allies, neither Bossi nor Fini, Berlusconi's main political partners, seem likely to push their captain overboard. The opposition hasn't even got a leader and the candidates have the teeth of a newborn baby. The magistrature has brought accusations against Berlusconi in the past that far outweigh sleeping around, but if they haven't knocked him out, it's unlikely a bit of hanky panky will.

The recording of Berlusconi's moments of intimacy appears such a well-organised sting that there's been gossip about secret service involvement. But even though the secret services have manipulated Italian politics at one time or other, they couldn't single-handedly bring down Berlusconi.

There is the media, but you know who owns most of that. In fact, these scandals have been much bigger news abroad than in Italy. Partly because the Italian media have never been interested in the private lives of its politicians; and partly because there is an injunction against the publication of the photographs from Sardinian parties on privacy grounds (they were published by 'El Pais' in Spain).

Although publications such as 'La Repubblica' and 'L'Espresso' have been relentlessly pursuing the story, many Italian newspapers don't have it on their front pages, or even have it at all; and were you to get your information solely from television you would barely know anything was up.

Which leaves two other sources of opposition. The Vatican has never been averse to wading into Italian politics, but until now Berlusconi has been given a shamefully easy ride. His right-wing coalition has been seen as the bastion of family values, despite the fact that all of its leaders -- Berlusconi, Bossi, Fini and, until he jumped ship, Casini -- had split with their wives and set up with younger women.

There are signs that the Catholic hierarchy is finally waking from its slumbers: in recent months, there have been veiled criticisms of the prime minister, with calls for "sobriety" in government, and critical articles have appeared in magazines such as 'Famiglia Cristiana'.

But the only hope lies with the most enigmatic opposition of all: the sacred Italian popolo, the people. Once in a generation, it rises up in furious indignation against injustice, oppression or corruption. But there's no sense another revolution is imminent.

Which is why Berlusconi's government will survive to serve its full mandate. And it's why he's already planning for greater things. It's an open secret that he's aiming to reinvent the position of president, turning it from a ceremonial, red-carpet role into a powerful presidency like that of America or France. No prizes for guessing who he thinks should get the job. And the thing is, he probably will. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Tobias Jones is the author of 'The Dark Heart of Italy'. His Italian crime novel, 'The Salati Case', has just been published

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