PARIS – Ahead of the July G-8 summit in Italy, what Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Italian officials are most concerned about is an ongoing story about the premier’s infatuation with 18-year-old Noemi Letizia.
Mr. Berlusconi's flings with dancers, show girls, and models are well known – but never took a serious political toll. Now, the uproar over Ms. Letizia has the billionaire premier on the defensive.
Fallout over the affair may be measured in European elections in June. But a G-8 summit held in the midst of a snap, crackle, and pop over what the Italian media has called “Noemigate” would ill serve him and the meeting, an important checkpoint in the global economic crisis, according to political analysts.
The €6,000 diamond necklace
The Italian job market itself is in an ongoing state of crisis. But the hot story remains Berlusconi’s young female “friend.” Letizia turned 18 on April 26 – something Berlusconi, 72, doubtless knows, since he attended her birthday party and gave her a €6,000 (about $8,382) gold and diamond necklace, sparking questions about him and her. (Read the Monitor's previous coverage of the issue here.)
Thursday Berlusconi took a new tack – issuing a statement saying that he's previously clarified there was nothing wrong with the relationship. If someone asked if he had a "spicy or more than spicy" relationship with a minor, his answer would be "absolutely not." He reportedly added that if he lied about the relationship, "I would have to resign a minute later."
He says that he plans to say nothing more. This is a shift from earlier vows to fully disclose the affair in Parliament.
Ten simple questions
But that was before a round of major contradictions arose over the story. Currently, 10 simple but penetrating questions for Berlusconi, assembled by the left leaning La Repubblica, remain on the table.
So far, Letizia’s age is about the only thing that is clear about the situation, other than the demand of the first lady of Italy, Veronica Lario, for a divorce – after the birthday party. Berlusconi has brushed off the matter as political revenge.
The Financial Times opined this week that the “danger of Berlusconi,” whose right-wing “cronies” appear better at Italian politics than the left, is not the fascism of the past – but “that of media sapping the serious content of politics, and replacing it with entertainment” and a culture of “ruthless demonization” of those wishing to question him.
In his career, the right-wing Italian media magnate-cum-premier has weathered worse. This year, he put up several showgirls as candidates for European elections, until a popular outcry forced their withdrawal.
Not the first Berlusconi scandal
Two years ago, he ignited controversy with a comment to a member of his Forza Italia party, Mara Carfagna, a showgirl known for winning TV contests and posing topless. He told Ms. Carfagna openly he would marry her, were he not already married. That prompted the first lady to ask for a public apology from Berlusconi, which he gave.
Carfagna is now the Minister for Equal Opportunity in his cabinet.
But the current issue is not dissipating as quickly as revelations continue to surface. Letizia's ex-boyfriend, for example, said Letizia made an unaccompanied eight-day visit to Berlusconi’s resort. He said Berlusconi didn’t meet Letizia as an old family friend, but phoned her after seeing a modeling catalog that one of her friends had left in one of his villas.
All the factors have contributed to a media maelstrom. As writer Marco Castelnuovo in La Stampa puts it, “The prime minister is in the storm, and it seems he doesn’t know how to come out of it, with so many statements and answers unconfirmed….”
Corriere della Sera columnist Pierluigi Battista suggested Thursday that for Berlusconi “to speak clearly and convincingly” on the Letizia affair “would not be a humiliating pander to the wave of national gossip … but the only way to dissipate the current atmosphere that infects Italian politics.”
A political attack?
La Repubblica has led the charge over the affair, partly because Berlusconi's wife went to the newspaper with details, as she did in the Carfagna blowup. The prime minister has attacked the paper for violating his privacy, telling CNN several days ago that “I think using a private affair for a political attack is disgraceful.”
La Repubblica has editorialized that the issue is not about privacy but inconsistent explanations. “Indeed, it was Mr. Berlusconi himself who has mixed his public and private life to such an extent that any boundaries disappeared. His biography has been his electoral program and was mailed to 50 million Italians on the eve of his political debut; today, 15 years later, he continues to promote in this manner, offering a photostory of his childhood in his family-owned magazine, portraying him on the first day of his Holy Communion….”
Political columnist Claudio Tito, in Corriere della Sera, which has been cautious in its reports, says that as the story builds, the “anxiety at the Palazzo Chigi [the official residence]” is over the G-8, “the idea that a summit between the world powers might be troubled” by the prime minister's personal scandal.
But it wouldn't be the first time – in 1994 Berlusconi was notified during a UN summit on crime that he was under a judicial inquiry in what became the “Clean Hands” trials that led to his resignation.