The untouchable Berlusconi

ROME, Italy — It would have been a rough day for most prime ministers.

Last week, a Milan court revealed that a lawyer convicted of lying in two investigations regarding Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi’s financial empire, Fininvest, had accepted about 600,000 euros for shielding his client from charges of tax evasion.

But in Italy, everyone — and most of all Berlusconi — knows that this accusation, which would be politically damning for most Western leaders, is just one more blip on the radar screen of his long-running confrontation with the Italian judiciary. Berlusconi's many trials (102 by his count, most on corruption or financial fraud), have ended in acquittal, the running out of the statute of limitations, or cancellation because laws passed by his majority turned certain financial crimes into misdemeanors.

While his lawyer, David Mills, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, Berlusconi will not stand trial. Last summer his majority coalition hurriedly passed a law exempting the four top political figures in the country from prosecution while in office.

But that wasn't all that happened to Berlusconi last week.

The former boyfriend of an 18-year-old aspiring model, named Letizia, whose relationship with Berlusconi is under intense media scrutiny, said the prime minister called her several times and spent New Year's Eve with her and several dozen other young women. (The former boyfriend told this to the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica, which Berlusconi accuses of being on a campaign to destroy his political career.)

Oh, and earlier this month Berlusconi's wife of 19 years, Veronica Lario, said that she intended to divorce him. She was, she said, fed up with his much-noted appreciation of young starlets and press reports that he was fielding some of them as candidates in the upcoming European Parliament elections.

While he appears politically untouchable, Berlusconi does seem to be fraying at the edges.

“The Italians are with me!” he said in a fury last week when asked whether he would forego his immunity from prosecution in order to clear his name. “This makes me furious!” he told the reporter who dared ask, calling the sentence “scandalous, shameful” and said his innocence would be proven on appeal by a more impartial court.

When asked about his relationship with Letizia, Berlusconi told journalists, “Shame, you should all be ashamed of yourselves.” He said reporters had “targeted this girl in an unacceptable way … . I’m ashamed for you.” Leftist newspapers, he said, targeted him because they were motivated by “envy” and “hate.”

Berlusconi still rates over 50 percent in personal popularity polls and his political group, the People of Freedom Party (PDL), is predicted to win 40 percent of the vote in June's European Parliament elections. Berlusconi's own polls show that more than 70 percent of Italian voters back him, making him, he has said, “the most popular leader in the world, more popular than Obama.”

The legislators that make up his ample parliamentary majority and much of the media he owns defend him ferociously. They have attacked his wife as “ungrateful” and even “unstable.” In his latest judicial scuffle, they have argued that Berlusconi is the victim of leftist prosecutors, judges and media. (Most newspapers reported the juicy news from the interview with Letizia's boyfriend, even though her father threatened to sue anyone reporting the material.)

There is little doubt that Berlusconi and the PDL, with the help of the increasingly vociferous and anti-immigrant Northern League, will make a sweep of the European elections that few Italians care much about. And there is little doubt that there would be no certain victory without him, Italy’s billionaire media tycoon.

Analysts have attributed Berlusconi's unprecedented popularity to his business success, to his ability to understand speak directly to the people and to his tough anti-leftist rhetoric. His direct control of three television stations and indirect control of the three state channels, several newspapers and weeklies, the country’s largest publishing house and movie distribution agency doesn't hurt.

And just to make sure even his allies know who is in charge, Berlusconi said on Thursday that there were too many legislators (nearly 1,000 between the Senate and Chamber of Deputies). He called for more power for the prime minister’s office and a cut in parliament, saying “100 would be enough, like the U.S. Congress.”

Such changes would take a “popular initiative,” Berlusconi continued, because “you can’t expect the turkeys to move forward Christmas.”

The comment sparked indignation from lawmakers. But one newspaper headline captured the essence of Berlusconi's spell: "Silvio says what the people think.”

It’s unlikely that Berlusconi would ever be convicted on the corruption charges, even if the proceedings start up again at the end of his mandate in 2013, because of the statute of limitations. He’ll pull through this one, too.

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