How Has Berlusconi Survived His Sex Scandal?

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REUTERS / Remo Casilli

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a right-wing-youth party meeting with champion swimmer Francesca Pellegrini in Rome on Sept. 9, 2009

Silvio Berlusconi's struggle to outrun revelations about his private life has kept headline writers from Tallahassee to Tokyo busy for nearly six months now. The latest chapter began on Sept. 8, with the leaked court testimony of a Bari businessman accused of bringing prostitutes to the Italian Prime Minister's private residence in Rome. Though the deposition by Gianpaolo Tarantini confirmed Berlusconi's earlier claims that he didn't know the women were being paid, its contents were so juicy, it set off a whole new round of coverage. When Berlusconi was asked about Tarantini's testimony two days later at a press conference, his 10-minute, over-the-top response left the impression of a world leader suffering from an extreme case of political vertigo.

In Italy, though, Berlusconi's alleged romps and his heavy-handed attempts to fend off the allegations are just part of the story. In the land of Machiavelli, the one thing that gets as much attention as what's happening inside the Prime Minister's bedroom is what's happening in the political back rooms.

With the center-left opposition all but nonexistent in Italy's Parliament, everyone is on the lookout for potential Judases within the ruling majority's ranks. And as far as the Italian media are concerned, Gianfranco Fini, president of Parliament's lower house, is filling that role nicely. The local paper in Bologna, Il Resto del Carlino, like others in Italy, offers daily updates on a brewing feud between Berlusconi and Fini, the most powerful right-wing politician from this traditionally left-leaning city. Last week, Fini demanded "more democracy" within the center-right coalition and lashed out at Berlusconi's family newspaper, Il Giornale, for accusing him of drifting leftward. "Enough already. It's time for a new approach," Fini told reporters in the central city of Gubbio. "I won't renounce my ideas, and I say 'No' to groupthink." And just on Monday, Sept. 14, Fini said he was considering a lawsuit against Il Giornale for an article that referred to his links to a "red light" scandal in 2000.

They may make for good reading, but Fini's veiled threats to pull his support ultimately carry little weight. Same with similar threats from the anti-immigrant Northern League party and Catholic pols who dream of creating a new centrist movement. All of the major figures on the right have too much riding on Berlusconi, who paradoxically grows in power even as the scandals seem to weaken his moral authority. In some ways, Berlusconi is the Italian political equivalent of Bank of America or AIG: he is simply too big to fail. Too many who have carved out their slice of power would risk losing it all in the monumental shakeout that would follow Berlusconi's exit from politics. And even in that unlikely scenario, the Prime Minister would have his ownership of the nation's major private television networks to fall back on. Considering all of that, Berlusconi could probably get away with just brushing off the salacious stories that follow him around as mere gossip.

Which leaves the puzzling question of why the Prime Minister continues to add fuel to the scandal's flames. Tarantini's testimony included rich details of up to 30 young women he brought to 18 different parties at Berlusconi's residences. Some newspapers compared the dates in the testimony with their own archives and found that on several occasions Berlusconi had opted out of public appearances, presumably to enjoy the company of "beautiful women," as he himself has admitted to. Still, the testimony was nothing earth-shattering and indeed backed up Berlusconi's declaration that he thought the women were simply "friends" of Tarantini's.

But when a reporter for the daily El País asked him about it two days later, Berlusconi went on a verbal rampage full of quotable gems. His confirmation that showgirls were frequent guests at his dinners: "Of the males here, raise your hands who wouldn't want to eat in front of [beautiful women] instead of [less attractive] people." His denial of ever knowingly being involved in prostitution: "I have never paid a lira, a euro for sex. I say this also because, for those who love to conquer, the joy and the most beautiful satisfaction are in the conquest. If you have to pay, I ask you, what joy is there?" And finally, on his overall job performance: "I think that I am far and away the best Prime Minister in [modern] Italy's 150-year history."

Berlusconi can be measured as the sum of his appetites and ego. They are what have helped make him the most influential Italian of his generation. But his often uncontrollable desire to persuade and seduce — rather than the petty calculations of his foes — is the one thing that could bring everything crashing down around him.