The Italian newspapers have been preoccupied with one subject and one subject only: the relationship between prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and a young woman from Naples called Noemi Letizia.
Mr Berlusconi has been caught out telling numerous lies about the relationship and refuses to explain it. And with important elections pending, his popularity, at an all-time high only six weeks ago, may be eroding.
The media cannot be accused of muck-raking on the issue because it was Mr Berlusconi himself who drew attention to the relationship on May 26, when he took advantage of a trip to Naples to drop in on Noemi's 18th birthday party. The prime minister posed for photographs and presented the pretty young blonde with a gold and diamond pendant. This unremarkable event was immortalised in a short news story the next day in 'La Repubblica' newspaper.
And there it would have ended -- except that within four days it provided Mr Berlusconi's second wife, Veronica, with the casus belli for a divorce. Her husband, she said, was "consorting with minors"; he was "not well", she was worried about him, but in the meantime, after nearly 30 years together, she was in no doubt that the marriage was over.
Suddenly, that innocuous-seeming social event assumed sinister overtones. Noemi, it was learned, called Mr Berlusconi "papi", Italian for "daddy", and he seemed on terms of remarkable familiarity with the girl.
Berlusconi went on 'Porta-a-Porta', a late-night political chat show, and explained that Noemi's father, Elio Letizia, was an old political contact from his days when he was connected to Bettino Craxi and the Socialist party: and Berlusconi needed to see him on urgent European election business. But soon afterwards Bobo Craxi, son of the late Bettino, popped up and said he had never heard of Noemi's father.
Likewise Mr Berlusconi's unlikely claim about "election business" failed to pan out, and some weeks later was denied by Mr Letizia. Something about that birthday party, and Mr Berlusconi's presence at it, had tipped the long-suffering Veronica over the edge. Could Berlusconi be the lover of Noemi? Or might she be his love child? But Berlusconi flatly refused to shed any light on their relationship.
Today Italy is at an impasse: 'La Repubblica' has demanded Berlusconi come clean about Noemi, but he has repeatedly refused to do so. And, with European elections 10 days away, there is a keen possibility that this refusal will begin to injure him in polls, which he was expected to win with ease.
It is symptomatic of the trivialisation of Italian politics under Berlusconi that he is today being held to account, not for corruption, or mafia connections, but because of his relationship with a teenage girl. If the prime minister can get away with carrying on an adulterous, semi-public love affair with a teenage girl, and then lying so brazenly about it, and still he is not brought to account -- the nation is in danger. (Independent News Service)