The media tycoon and billionaire businessman who became Italian prime minister will stand trial next month on charges that he had sex with an underage prostitute (an offence punishable by a maximum sentence of three years under Italian law). He is also accused of abusing his position to help her, when she was accidentally arrested by the police in Milan: he allegedly asked the police to release her, claiming she was the niece of president Mubarak of Egypt. Judges believe the evidence collected by the prosecutors is so strong that the court decided to avoid preliminary discussions and go ahead with a fast track trial.
So, the man who has faced so many investigations, and is still under prosecution for corruption, money laundering, tax fraud and mafia connections, could be convicted and consequently removed from office for an infamous episode of prostitution and an evident lie – the girl is the daughter of a Moroccan immigrant living in Sicily, a belly-dancer, who hardly could be mistaken for the offspring of a wealthy Egyptian family.
In any other European country, a prime minister under such investigation would be expected to resign, but not in Italy, where, since the early 1990s, the increasing commixture between politics and corruption has produced a collapse in civic values. In this climate, Berlusconi and his lawyers can easily denounce the political stance of the judiciary power and many of his supporters will truly believe him.
In addition, Berlusconi is able to retain support from his coalition despite the scandal, and all attempts to force him to resign through a vote of no confidence have been proved counterproductive, with an increase in his parliamentary majority.
Even Berlusconi’s main ally in government, the Northern League, a party once sustained by a moralistic vision and a populist anti-corruption stance, is silent in the face of the sexual scandals and of the continuous exhibition of an excessive lifestyle that the prime minister keeps showing despite the moment of economic difficulty for the country.
What this last scandal demonstrates, however, is equally the degeneration of the centre-right’s political culture and the absence of a coherent and credible alternative.
The centre-left Democratic Party, the main opposition group, has organised national rallies and petitions demanding Berlusconi resign but has not been able to transform the scandal into political consensus behind it. The only proposal the PD leader Pierluigi Bersani has been able to put forward at the moment is a transitional emergency alliance amongst all the opposition parties, from the radical left to the former lieutenant of Berlusconi, speaker of the house Gianfranco Fini, from the moderate Catholic party to former magistrate and populist leader Antonio Di Pietro. It comes as no surprise that this proposal has not been accepted by many of the other parties, and created some discontents also among PD members and supporters.
It is not clear what sort of manifesto such a heterogeneous coalition would present, and who would be the best person to lead it. Bersani has said that the emergency government should focus only on few urgent issues, such the reform of electoral law and the response to the economic crisis, but also on these topics it is difficult to find a common ground amongs all the oppositions.
The main risk is that voters would not support a coalition whose sole aim is not being Berlusconi and that would be unable to keep united while in government.
While Berlusconi still clings on to power and the weak and divided opposition cast about for a credible alternative, Italy’s international reputation has hit its lowest ebb. Hardly the best scenario to be celebrating the 150th anniversary of national unification in just three weeks’ time.
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