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Outside Edge: Politics and Silvio’s starlets

July 11, 2008

By Guy Dinmore Published: July 11 2008

Sex and politics – Italian style. Will a model-turned-minister prove the undoing of Silvio Berlusconi, just as Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment?

Mr Berlusconi will be 114 years old in 2050, the target set by this week’s G8 summit to halve greenhouse gases, so when the prime minister got home it was no surprise to find the country fixated on more immediate issues – namely can he pass laws quickly enough to save himself from further scandals and legal trouble.

I read the courts are after you again. It’s unbelievable,” sympathised US President George W. Bush, greeting his old friend and ally in Japan. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Constantly after you!

On top of two corruption cases against Mr Berlusconi, opposition newspapers allege that magistrates possess telephone intercepts revealing steamy conversations between the 71-year-old billionaire and female colleagues in government. Sabina Guzzanti, a leftwing comic, alleged at an opposition rally that Mara Carfagna, a 32-year-old former showgirl, owed her recent elevation to minister for equal opportunities to performing Lewinsky-like services for her boss. Ms Carfagna, a law graduate, has responded with dignity and a lawsuit.

Rome prosecutors have also started investigating allegations that Mr Berlusconi tried to corrupt Agostino Saccà, former drama editor for Rai, the state broadcaster. Press accounts claim that leaked telephone intercepts reveal Mr Berlusconi – then opposition leader – leaning on Mr Saccà last year to give roles to several starlets (“my butterflies”). Mr Berlusconi reportedly says he needs to do a favour for a senator he hopes will help bring down the centre-left government. He allegedly complains a “madwoman” actress was saying “crazy things” and “getting dangerous”. “Do me this favour,” he is quoted as saying.

This muck-raking has gone too far, Mr Berlusconi says. “It is like East Germany in the 1950s,” says a colleague who asked not to be named, echoing his accusation that politically motivated reporters and judges are out to get him. In his 14 years in politics, he counts 2,500 hearings, 587 police visits and €174m in legal fees, but no final convictions. “The country is in an economic emergency and we cannot govern,” the colleague says.

Moving through parliament are measures to stop the leaks and trials. One carries heavy punishment for publishing pre-trial intercepts. Another suspends many trials dating before mid-2002, including a corruption case against Mr Berlusconi and David Mills, his former UK lawyer. Parliament also wants immunity for the top four holders of political office.

While Italians resent pervasive corruption, there is not a strong sense that they care about Mr Berlusconi’s private life. Catholic Italy is not the puritanical US, says the colleague. “Here we live with the concept of sin all the time.”

The writer is the FT’s Rome bureau chief

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