At the risk of being repetitive, the Italian media and a good portion of foreign commentators are once again agog at Berlusconi’s sex life and above all, his abuse of power. We can only echo Yogi Berra wearily, “It’s déjà vu all over again”.
For a moment, one was tempted to think that this was all a great plot by a diabolically devious Berlusconi; his friendship with “Ruby” the now 18 year old Moroccan girl almost looks like a diversionary tactic to shift media focus from his government’s inaction and lack of success. He did something like that in 2003 when he suggested in the European Parliament that a German MEP, Martin Schulz, could play the part of a concentration camp guard. It caused an uproar but no one got an answer from Schulz’s question (“how will you be able to act as the president of the European Union with your conflicts of interests?). This time, though, there were no hidden motives and both he and his government are suffering real damage from what has inevitably been called “Rubygate”.
The superficial story is that the Italian prime minister has a weakness for pretty girls. This is hardly news; 18 months ago his wife said that he was “not well and frequents minors”. He had met the 17 year old Naomi Letizia on various occasions and then very publically went to her 18th birthday party. A month later it transpired that he had spent the US election night in November 2008 with Patrizia D’Addario, an escort from Bari who had recorded their encounter. Photographs were published of almost naked girls at his Sardinian villa. This time he called the Milan police last May to secure the release of an underage Moroccan with no documents. The girl had visited Berlusconi at least once and he admitted both to the meeting and the calls to the police when he said he “always helped people in need”.
But there other aspects to the revelations which are even more serious. So far no one is suggesting that he had sex with the girl but over the last week there have been more allegations about paid sex for the prime minister and now another minister, Renato Brunetta, hyperactive and even more vertically challenged than the prime minister who has been trying to cut waste and overmanning in the public administration.
The story came out as part of an investigation into a prostitution racket. The main figures under investigation are all closely linked to Berlusconi. There is Emilio Fede, the grovelling anchorman of Berlusconi’s Rete Quattro news. It was Fede who made the connection between Berlusconi and Naomi. He is a frequent member of beauty contest juries and is always on the lookout for young talent. Also under investigation is Lele Mora who is professionally a talent scout and agent as well as being a neighbour of Berlusconi’s in Sardinia. There are also investigations into Mora’s connections with Calabrian organised crime, the ndrangheta. The third person is Nicole Minetti a 25 year old former showgirl and dancer, now described as the Prime Minister’s dental hygienist. Earlier this year Berlusconi put her up for election to the Lombard Regional Assembly where she now sits. It was Minetti who took charge of “Ruby” after the Prime Minister’s phone calls to the police.
At the very least, this suggest a rising tide of sleaze even if there are no criminal convictions at the end of the day. Berlusconi himself has made matters worse by admitting the call to the police in May and then boasting about his life style. And then to add to the anti-semitic, anti-women and blasphemous “jokes” last month, he proudly proclaimed that it was better to “love women than to be gay”. Finally then to give the old definition of chutzpah [the quality of nerve defined by the person who murders both his parents and then demands support from the community because he is an orphan] a new spin, Fede explained that Berlusconi “is single and has become sad since he lost his mother. I can’t see anything wrong if he enjoys himself one evening a week”. He ended the interview saying “I’ve got to go on air, otherwise he’ll fire me”.
But there is more than sycophantic courtiers to this story. Some of Berlusconi’s carabinieri escorts have complained that they spend more time moving and escorting the prime minister’s “escorts” than providing security. Worse is the strong suspicion that Berlusconi leant on the police to have Ruby released. So far the letter of the law appears to have been followed but in Italy and in many other places a policeman ignores a call from the prime minister at his peril.
All of this happens as rubbish once again piles up in and around Naples; Parliament was adjourned for most of last month; last Friday’s cabinet meeting failed to set up a nuclear energy agency or appoint new members of the stock exchange watchdog, the Consob. And on Saturday, Emma Marcegaglia, the president of the Confindustria, the employers’ association, once again laid into the government’s inaction. “The country is paralysed” she said, “and the government is absent”.
Worse from Berlusconi’s personal point of view, his “reform of justice” (shorthand for his own immunity) has ground to a standstill with strong opposition from the breakaway centre right group lead by Gianfranco Fini and from President Napolitano. On 14 December the Constitutional Court will pronounce on the constitutionality of his present immunity law; if they overturn it, then Berlusconi will have to again answer summonses to appear in court and could face a conviction by the end of next year. If that happens, there is a fair chance that Berlusconi would cut and run like his friend and mentor Bettino Craxi 20 years ago. Craxi spent the rest of his life in gilded exile in Tunisia; Berlusconi has just bought a new villa in Antigua so there might be a Caribbean future for him; still, it would be a terrible failure however comfortable.
By any standards, he is floundering. Opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani and other have urged Fini and his Futuro e Libertà to “pull the plug”. They could, and would like to do so on the immunity/impunity issue but for the moment, they don’t dare.
Fini has carved out a role as a “responsible statesman” – he cannot be seen to being bringing down the government and in any case, his group Futuro e Libertà is not ready to fight an election. He cannot be seen to be a rabblerouser especially when his natural allies like Marcegaglia and the Confindustria have said explicitly that they do not want early elections. The trades unions have not been so clear but they too don’t want to risk elections which mean instability and who knows whether the polls would give them a better result. For its part only Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori would relish a campaign.
So Berlusconi will teeter on. In the meantime support from conservatives and the church is eroding because of his lifestyle, from business because of the stagnant economy and from consumers because of declining purchasing power. But for the moment, there is no alternative and if elections were held now, he would, despite everything, probably, win again; the relative majority in the Chamber, but that would give him an absolute majority of seats. So he can challenge Fini as he did today and Fini will for the moment “support the government programme”.
In Italian grand opera, the heroine takes half an hour to die; in the Grand Soap Opera which is Berlusconi’s Italy, the government takes half a year or more to collapse.