Italy faces the extraordinary prospect of seeing its prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, standing in the dock on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute, after prosecutors Wednesday called for the 74-year-old billionaire to be sent immediately to trial.
The prosecutors in Milan said they had “sufficient evidence” for the case to be sent to trial without the need for preliminary hearings, meaning the prime minister could face court within weeks.
But while this is one of the biggest scandals of his three terms as prime minister, it remains uncertain what it means for Mr. Berlusconi's hold on power. After all, he has weathered many crises, both personal and political, in his lengthy career. If he is eventually convicted, however, he could face a three-year jail sentence.
As for Berlusconi’s center-right supporters, many appear to have largely shrugged off the sex scandal. A poll released earlier this month showed that while his personal approval rating had declined from 40 percent to 35 percent between December and January, support for his People of Freedom party had increased by a few points.
The survey showed that it still has the highest approval level – nearly 30 percent – compared with 25 percent for the center-left Democratic Party, the main opposition bloc.
As for the Italian public, many are transfixed by the scandal and the media is carrying lurid details about Berlusconi's personal life and there have been some public protests against him in light of the recent revelations. But many Italians get their news from television channels owned by Berlusconi’s Mediaset broadcasting empire, which have downplayed, or even ignored, the scandal.
Prosecutors have accused Berlusconi of paying to have sexual relations with a 17-year-old nightclub dancer, Karima el-Mahroug. Investigators also allege that the prime minister abused his office by putting pressure on police in Milan to have the Moroccan-born teenager released from custody after she was arrested on suspicion of theft – an allegation that carries a maximum 12-year prison term.
Berlusconi has admitted personally calling a police station in Milan to intervene in the case, justifying his actions by saying that he believed Ms. Mahroug’s claim that she was the granddaughter of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
He said he intervened in the case only to prevent a diplomatic incident, but a magistrate who was involved in the case expressed the skepticism of many Italians when she said at the time: “If she’s Mubarak’s granddaughter then I’m Queen Nefertiti of the Nile.”
Berlusconi on Wednesday angrily dismissed the allegations, saying they were entirely without foundation, despite hundreds of telephone conversations intercepted by prosecutors that apparently show that he paid hundreds of thousands of euros to a parade of glamorous young women.
He said the accusations were "disgusting and disgraceful" and accused prosecutors of having "subversive purposes."
"I can only say that it's a farce. But I am not worried about myself. I am a rich man who could spend his time building hospitals for children around the world, as I have always wanted," he said.
If the examining magistrate in the case, Cristina Di Censo, agrees that there is enough evidence to proceed, a trial could start before Easter. But if she rules that the case is not strong enough to warrant a fast-track trial, prosecutors will then have to try to bring Berlusconi to trial through lengthier channels.
Berlusconi, who survived a no-confidence vote in December, still has a majority in the Italian parliament, albeit a very slim one in the lower house.
He retains the crucial support of his most powerful coalition ally – the Northern League, a devolutionist party that wants more powers for Italy’s rich northern regions and to which Berlusconi has given several key concessions.
The opposition is regarded as weak and disorganized, and most polls suggest that even if an election was called tomorrow, Berlusconi would win, notwithstanding his legal woes.
His supporters say that he has faced more than 100 trials and thousands of court hearings since he first entered politics in 1994. He has been convicted in some of the cases and sentenced to jail, but they were overturned on appeal or were “timed out” under Italy’s statute of limitations.