Italy's Berlusconi remains popular – though not with his wife

The economy is in tatters, he's been accused of having an affair with a teenager, and his wife announced her intentions to divorce in a newspaper, but Berlusconi's popularity remains strong.

Maxim Shipenkov, Pool/AP/FILE
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi seen at a joint news conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Barvikha residence outside Moscow, Saturday, May 16.

MILAN, ITALY – The financial crisis is hitting hard here: 22 percent of Italians are facing economic hardship, according to figures released on Monday by the National Institute of Statistics. Data released earlier this month shows that salaries here are among the lowest and taxes some of the highest in developed countries (for more Monitor coverage of Italy's flagging economy, click here).

Yet, as the country is heading toward elections, the main topic of debate seems to be Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's private life; notably, his alleged summer fling with a 17-year-old (now 18) and the resulting divorce petition from his wife.

On Tuesday, the conservative Mr. Berlusconi gave an interview with the small independent television station Italia 7, accusing the political opposition of “spreading hatred” against him.

The gossip has covered the front pages of Italian newspapers for almost a month, ever since Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, announced that she was seeking a divorce in column published on April 29 by the left-leaning daily La Repubblica.

“I can no longer be with a man who has a relationship with a minor,” Mrs. Berlusconi wrote after reports that her husband attended the 18th birthday party of Noemi Letizia, a student in Naples, who is also rumored to have been the prime minister's lover.

Ms. Letizia's parents and Berlusconi's aides maintain he was just a family friend, but Letizia's ex-boyfriend, Gino Flaminio, has told newspapers here that she spent a winter school break at the prime minister's private villa, with some 30 other young women.

Ms. Berlusconi's accusations, still to be confirmed, carry no legal implication, since the age of consent in Italy is 14.

But they soon turned into a media and political hype.

Opposition leader Dario Franceschini asked the prime minister to issue a public statement, and Berlusconi himself said he may report to the Parliament on the subject. Yet the incident doesn't seem to have affected the government's popularity much.

On June 6-7, Italians will elect their representatives for the European Parliament, as well as to 62 provincial councils. The most recent polls showed his ruling conservative coalition with a 40 percent popularity rate, just a couple of points below their standing last month, and 3.7 percent higher than last year elections. Meanwhile, support for the opposition progressive party is at historical lows.

“Italians are quite a voyeuristic people and love to gossip about the famous's private lives,” says David Bidussa, a political historian at the progressive Feltrinelli Institute. “But this doesn't affect much a leader's career. As the saying goes, 'A priest is a priest only when he is at the altar.' ”

Having a reputation of a womanizer may help a leader's perceived charisma here, Mr. Bidussa says. “This is a tradition of power image that dates back to Mussolini.”

What's new, argues Bidussa, is that for the first time, the gossip has completely overshadowed the political issues.

“I wonder why the opposition leader is attacking Berlusconi on this girl, rather than his disastrous economic and education policies,” says the historian (for an article on education reform, click here). “The problem is that nobody, left or right, has any real policies to discuss anymore.

“If there's one conclusion to draw from this story, it is that Italy lacks a serious political leadership.”

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