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The untouchable Berlusconi

Italy's prime minister survives another corruption accusation — and scandal — with his popularity intact.

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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