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Berlusconi whisper grow louder

June 25, 2009

by Guy Dinmore, Rome

published on FT on June 25 2009

Silvio Berlusconi’s close supporters deny there will be any “fuggi fuggi” – rush to the exit – in the wake of highly publicised scandals surrounding his private life, but senior allies in Italy’s centre-right coalition are already contemplating a political future without their long-time leader.

Well-placed government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, stress that they do not see the 72-year-old media tycoon and three-time prime minister resigning soon. Yet key ministers are starting to position themselves in the event that more damaging revelations might lead him to step down.

“This is a completely new scenario,” one official said. “The sands are shifting,” he added, looking back at the past two months since news first broke about Mr Berlusconi’s friendship with an 18-year-old would-be model and the subsequent declaration by his wife, Veronica Lario, that she wanted to divorce the man who “frequents minors”.

An aide to Mr Berlusconi – maintaining the official position that the “scandals” are a fabrication and conspiracy involving opposition parties, newspapers and politically-motivated magistrates – said the cabinet fears prosecutors will time the announcement of an official investigation into the prime minister just as he is hosting world leaders at the G8 summit next month.

Parallels are being drawn with 1994 when a court served notice that Mr Berlusconi was under investigation for corruption while he was leading a UN conference on crime. His government collapsed a month later when a key coalition partner, the Northern League, pulled out.

G8 foreign ministers preparing for the summit start a two-day meeting in Italy this evening.

Mr Berlusconi on Wednesday fought back against the drip-drip of revelations in an interview with Chi, part of his stable of magazines. He said he had no memory of the name or face of Patrizia D’Addario, 42, who alleges she was among women paid by a businessman to attend parties at Mr Berlusconi’s private residences and had spent the night of the US elections in November last year at his Rome mansion.

Mr Berlusconi said he had never paid a woman for sex.

In the course of intercepting telephone calls made by Giampaolo Tarantini, a medical services businessman suspected of corruption in gaining health sector contracts, prosecutors in the port city of Bari started investigating whether he had procured prostitutes.

Mr Tarantini has been quoted as denying the accusations, saying he just paid their expenses. Mr Berlusconi said Mr Tarantini was introduced to him as a respectable entrepreneur last year.

Ministers fear that Ms D’Addario’s claims to have pictures and tapes of her encounter with Mr Berlusconi might prove to be true and damaging, or that allegations surrounding Mr Tarantini will widen.

Key dynamics have changed, government sources say. First is the sense that Mr Berlusconi’s perceived ambitions to move on from being prime minister to head of state have been dashed. Secondly, European elections this month showed that voters are shifting away. Lastly, Italy’s international image has been diminished, and Roman Catholic clerics are exerting pressure.

Despite his image of the billionaire patron spoiling friends with gifts and lavish parties, allies portray him as isolated, with no one daring to offer personal advice. In his melancholic interview with Chi, Mr Berlusconi recalls that over the year his mother and sister have passed away, and he has lost the wife he loved.

Charismatic and rich, Mr Berlusconi is the glue that kept his disparate coalition together. He has no obvious successor. His new party, People of Liberty, has no deputy leader.

Ministers are falling into several camps. Those whose futures depend on Mr Berlusconi surviving are vocal in defending him – including Maurizio Sacconi (welfare), Claudio Scajola (economic development) and Franco Frattini (foreign).

Women groomed by Mr Berlusconi – including Mara Carfagna (equal opportunities minister) and Stefania Prestigiacomo (environment) – are loyal, but in the current circumstances find it difficult to speak out.

Then there are key figures who have largely kept silent or distanced themselves, seeing a future beyond Mr Berlusconi, while hoping any succession will be orderly.

Gianni Letta, cabinet under-secretary, is closest to Mr Berlusconi and is effectively acting as prime minister, running affairs as his boss spends time fighting his problems. Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, has the advantage of close ties with the Northern League. Gianfranco Fini, speaker of parliament, is cultivating a respectable statesman image.

But like a Middle Eastern potentate who cannot afford to leave the scene, officials note one serious obstacle to resignation, apart from Mr Berlusconi’s renowned doggedness. His immunity from prosecution, granted by his large majority in parliament, lasts only as long as he stays in office.

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