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Berlusconi resists calls to quit over sex scandal

November 3, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: November 2 2010

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s 74-year-old billionaire prime minister, has survived past scandals linking him to prostitutes and questionable relationships with young women, but the latest case of a teenage Moroccan nightclub dancer could prove to be one controversy too far.

Trying to laugh off the crisis that has consumed Italy since late last week, Mr Berlusconi said on Tuesday: “It’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay,” and pledged to see out the rest of his term till 2013.

While triggering an outcry about those apparently homophobic remarks, the prime minister’s typically defiant stand was a response to opposition calls for his resignation amid allegations that he abused his powers to spring Karima El Mahroug from a Milan police station in May to forestall the possibility that she might reveal incriminating details about parties he had hosted.But his words may also have been directed at his own centre-right allies who, according to official sources and newspaper reports, have concluded in private that Mr Berlusconi is a liability for the government and that he should step down in an orderly transfer of power without calling snap elections.

Under such a scenario, Mr Berlusconi, who won parliamentary elections in 2008, would nominate as prime minister either Gianni Letta, his cabinet secretary and long-time ally, or Giulio Tremonti, the finance minister, a man seen as enjoying the trust of an increasingly disenchanted business community.

However, as Milan magistrates investigate what happened on the night of May 27, Mr Berlusconi shows no sign of yielding, declaring in a book to be released this week that Italy would incur “great harm” should he step down.

Nonetheless his political future appears beyond his control, with the government’s ability to preserve its majority in parliament resting in the hands of Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League and a key coalition ally, and Gianfranco Fini, a former ally who this weekend is set to launch his own party, Future and Liberty of Italy.

Mr Bossi’s populist party, anchored in the north, would probably benefit should elections be held, but is standing by Mr Berlusconi – unlike in 1994 when he brought down the prime minister’s first government. Mr Fini, not yet ready for elections, has only gone so far as to say Mr Berlusconi should step down if the allegations against him are proven. Declaring his “love of life and women”, Mr Berlusconi has publicly confirmed he knew Ms El Mahroug, who turned 18 on Monday and is known by her stage name of Ruby Rubacuori, saying he helped someone in need.

According to Il Giornale, a daily owned by the Berlusconi family, the prime minister called a police in Milan to seek information, when he learnt from an (unnamed) female acquaintance that the Moroccan teenager was in trouble.

Mr Berlusconi, however, denies reports that he asked for her release on the grounds that she was related to Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt. Through Il Giornale he says that it was Ms El Mahroug who claimed her Egyptian provenance.

The teenager has given various interviews and her latest is to appear in the magazine, Oggi, on Wednesday. In this she admits she lied about her age when invited to a party with nine other young women hosted by the prime minister. She denies having sex, says that Mr Berlusconi commented on her legs, gave her €7,000 and a necklace, dedicated a song to her and related a favourite joke. “I felt like Cinderella,” she adds.

Following her release from Milan’s police station, she says Mr Berlusconi called her to say he did not want to see her anymore.

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