It’s all very Italian. Berlusconi also lost his second wife, Veronica Lario, last year — she filed for divorce over his relationship with 18-year-old underwear model Noemi Letizia — but it’s the loss of his mother that really makes him sad. So sad that he needs consolation almost every night of the week.
No harm in that. The problem lies in his choice of consolers, some of whom appear to be high-priced prostitutes while the rest, or many of them, are teenagers. The ones who have come to public notice in the past week are a 17-year-old belly dancer, Karima el-Mahroug (aka Karima Keyek, aka “Ruby”), and 27-year-old Nadia Macri, a call girl who says he paid her more than US$10 000 a night for sex at his houses in Sardinia and near Milan.
Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men, can easily afford that. Indeed, he can afford regular consolatory parties of the kind Macri described, with 20-25 young women flown in to his Sardinian villa, and prostitution isn’t illegal in Italy. Drugs are, however, and there were allegations that all the women found a supply of marijuana in their rooms that led the police to the door of Macri.
Macri says that she never saw Berlusconi smoking up himself, but the scenes she witnessed sound like vignettes from the life of one of the later Roman emperors. At a party in May at the prime minister’s mansion in Acore, near Milan, she and other women took part in a post-dinner sex session with Berlusconi. “He would say ‘next one please’, and sometimes we were all together in the swimming pool, where sex took place.”
How does he get away with it? Well, he denies it all, of course, but with something close to a wink and a swagger. The bold, fast-talking scoundrel who walks away with all the cash and gets all the girls is a much admired figure in popular Italian culture, and Berlusconi plays shamelessly to that stereotype. The fact that he is 74 but apparently still having it off with teenage girls just reinforces that image, and never mind if he has to pay for it.
The teenagers are no problem, legally speaking: the age of consent in Italy is 14. What had caused Berlusconi some trouble recently is the accusation that he used his influence as prime minister to get Karima el-Mahroug, an illegal immigrant from Morocco, out of jail.
The young belly dancer was arrested last May on suspicion of stealing around US$4 000, but she didn’t spend the night in jail. A call from the prime minister himself, allegedly claiming (untruthfully) that she was the granddaughter of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, got her released into the custody of Berlusconi aide Nicole Minette.
That counts as abuse of power, which is a criminal offence in Italy (albeit a very common and generally unpunished crime). For a little while there, it looked as if Berlusconi was really in trouble. But then the system did its work, and last Wednesday the chief prosecutor of Milan ruled that there were no grounds for bringing a case against the prime minister. With a single bound, our hero was free once again.
His political position is a bit more difficult, since while the abuse of power charge still hung over him both of his main allies, Umberto Bossi, leader of the separatist Northern League, and former neo-fascist leader Gianfranco Fini, declared that he should step down if he could not refute the charge. It was a small but significant rejection of the Great Leader and Clown-in-Chief: they are ready to move on.
Fini is the more dangerous challenger. His strange, meandering transformation from a neo-fascist firebrand to a conventional centre-right leader who systematically steals the more popular policies of the centre-left has made him the only real candidate to replace Berlusconi — but first he must remove the old king.
The process has already begun: earlier this year, Fini pulled his followers out of “People of Liberty” party that he co-founded with Berlusconi and is building up his new “Future and Freedom Party.” (The alternative title, the “Olden Days and Oppression Party”, didn’t do well in the focus groups.) But the new party won’t be ready to fight an election until next spring at the earliest, so Fini won’t bring the government down now.
Neither will Umberto Bossi, so Berlusconi will probably stagger on as prime minister at least for another six months. Nor will he necessarily lose even then: his party still gets almost 30% support in opinion polls. And one thing we can be sure of: if he does finally lose power, it will not be because of his daily attempts to console himself for the loss of his mother.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.