In May this year, the wife of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi publicly declared her desire for a divorce, telling an Italian newspaper that “my husband frequents minors” because he is “ill”.
One of the minors referred to was Noemi Letizia, an aspiring model from Naples. In April, Berlusconi attended Letizia’s 18th birthday party and presented her with an expensive necklace.
His furious wife noted that Berlusconi had not attended their own children’s 18th birthday celebrations, and began divorce proceedings.
In June, a new scandal broke when women revealed they were paid to attend parties at Berlusconi’s residences. One of the women has alleged that Berlusconi slept with a paid escort at one such party.
These allegations would destroy any other politician, but Berlusconi is famed for his ability to survive a scandal.
How does he do it?
Successful in business before entering politics, Berlusconi controls a vast business empire, including football club AC Milan, and nearly half of all Italian media.
Critics say Berlusconi uses this media control to attack opponents and create favourable publicity for himself and his government.
Earlier this month, 60,000 Italians protested in Rome claiming threats to free press after Berlusconi launched lawsuits at other media over their sex scandal coverage.
This level of public outrage is new though.
When voters elected Berlusconi to a third term as prime minister in 2008, it was against a backdrop of national anxiety.
Corruption was widespread, particularly in the Mafia-dominated south, and economic growth was at almost zero.
Berlusconi presents himself as a patriot who is only involved in politics in order to save the country he loves.
Many Italians hope he can use his considerable business knowledge to solve Italy’s problems; something previous politicians have failed to do.
Because of this, Berlusconi’s numerous imperfections are forgiven by the public.
These range from serious corruption allegations and sex scandals, to his politically incorrect sense of humour such as complimenting Barack Obama on his “sun-tan”.
Berlusconi is seen not as a politician but as a businessman, and business is rarely clean. What matters is that Berlusconi gets the job done.
However, his earlier abuse of this popularity has come back to bite him.
One of his first acts after re-election in 2008 was to push through legislation which made him and other top officials immune from prosecution.
As a result, legal cases which accused Berlusconi of bribery and tax fraud were frozen.
Last week Italy’s Constitutional Court overturned the law, paving the way for corruption charges against Berlusconi to resume.
Focus on immigration
During the 2008 election, Berlusconi’s The People of Freedom alliance promised to stem illegal immigration and to crack down on the crimes that allegedly resulted from it.
His right-wing coalition government includes the strongly anti-immigration Northern League party.
Italy’s proximity to the African coastline means it does have a real problem with illegal immigration (over 33,000 arriving by sea in 2008 alone).
Despite this, opponents argue that the government’s policies make Italy’s immigrants – both legal and illegal – a scapegoat for harder-to-solve problems.
In July 2008 Berlusconi declared a national state of emergency in response to continued illegal immigration.
In a move denounced by the opposition as “window-dressing”, some 3,000 soldiers were placed on Italian streets to target “the thieves, the rapists, and the criminals”.
Highly publicised raids have targeted large shantytowns which are home to illegal immigrants as well as the Roma ethnic group (commonly referred to as ‘gypsies’).
Approximately 150,000 Roma live in Italy, and are seen by many as criminals.
When the government proposed collecting the fingerprints of all Roma children, purportedly to stop begging, the European Parliament criticised the move as a direct act of discrimination.
Italy’s only black MP, Jean-Leonard Touadi, has warned of growing racism in Italian society.
Touadi believes the government has greatly exaggerated the negative impact of immigration, creating an atmosphere of fear and hysteria.
Mud which sticks
The current sex scandal has proved unusually difficult for Berlusconi to shake-off.
The Catholic Church – still immensely influential with voters – has generally supported Berlusconi, but is finding that support increasingly difficult to justify with the recent allegations made against him.
As the scandal has intensified, Berlusconi has continued to make anti-immigration statements.
In June, he noted that Milan “seemed like an African city” because of the number of foreign-looking people in the streets. “I asked myself if this is the future Italians want: the answer is no”.
The comment followed earlier negative remarks about the number of Chinese living in Prato, and came in the same week a Spanish newspaper published photographs (banned in Italy) showing topless women lounging at Berlusconi’s Sardinia villa.
By continuing to focus on the alleged negative impact of immigration, Berlusconi can shore-up political support with his coalition partner The Northern League, and – he hopes – shift public attention away from his private life.
For now, the scandal rages on and Italy’s immigrant communities continue to feel the heat.
By Nick Jones
Photo – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi