Why Does Italy Put Up with Berlusconi?

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Photo-Illustration by Josue Evilla for TIME / Alessandra Benedetti / Corbis

Italy is at the mercy of an 18-year-old Moroccan and a dental hygienist. That's Italy, as in one of the founders of the European Union and the world's seventh largest economy.

The Moroccan calls herself Ruby the Heartbreaker. According to magistrates in Milan, she was lured into prostitution while still a minor by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who then tried to wrest her from the clutches of the police by claiming she was "Mubarak's granddaughter." The hygienist, a former showgirl named Nicole Minetti, is now a member of the Lombardy regional council and, according to the magistrates, is alleged to have organized paid encounters for Berlusconi's benefit involving scores of young women, many of whom have provided explicit accounts of what went on. Both Ruby and Minetti deny doing anything improper.

"Bunga bunga" is reportedly the Berlusconi crowd's name for sexual after-dinner stints, but it could equally be the sound of many Italians' heads being banged against a wall in disbelief. Not everyone's, though. Berlusconi, who denies the allegations against him, refuses to appear before magistrates, claiming he is being persecuted. His poll ratings are still buoyant, partly because of a lack of other political options, and the center-left opposition is split into six squabbling parties. That said, one asks oneself what a head of government has to do to elicit criticism, an objection or a raised eyebrow from his supporters. What is Italy's tolerance threshold?

The picture painted by conversations from phone taps — which have been published in the papers — reveals more than just a jaw-dropping lifestyle. It involves Italian institutions, elected bodies and state services like police escorts, all exploited and embarrassed by Berlusconi's alleged antics. Sadly, the man who should be showing us the way forward is turning into a catastrophe of a role model. Which ought to worry parents, teachers, educators and perhaps even one or two priests.

Torn between curiosity and a desire to draw a veil, ordinary Italians ask: How? Where? How often? Magistrates want to know: Who? And when? A sixth question is less fashionable: Why? Why did Silvio Berlusconi, 74, holder of the country's most important office, a man with a large family and a huge fortune, slide into a lifestyle that has left him covered in ridicule, and take us with him? Why does the Prime Minister of a major Western country feel obliged to surround himself with courtesans and dancing girls? The obvious answer might be that he enjoys it — not so much the alleged sex, which at a certain age is like scaling the Alps, as the admiration and its morbid bedfellows, adulation and adoration.

Not that all of this is new. The choreography described by attendees of Berlusconi's parties is an adults-only version of other moments from the Prime Minister's diary: the conferences with the admiring young female supporters; the television awards and the gaggles of starlets, which sparked the rage of his wife Veronica. Brazilian nights, Russian dachas and Sardinian pool parties all bear witness to Mr. B's weapons-grade narcissism. He wants to be loved, applauded and appreciated. It's one of the reasons he hates journalists (apart from his in-house media). Aggressive questions are a sign he is not loved. Intolerable.

In Mr. B, our national penchant for showing off, the instinct that drives us to make a bella figura (good impression), is white-hot and produces energy. Energy that prompts him to use his television stations as bait, reward and recruiting office. Energy that induces him to promote, protect and include young women on election lists for aesthetic purposes, ignoring the ridiculous side of the situation reminiscent of the most toe-curling Italian B movies from the '70s.

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