What’s with these Italians? Every day Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sinks deeper into a mire of sex scandal that portrays him, at seventy-five, as a partying old man fighting a rear-guard action on behalf of his libido. He has been on television, not to tell the nation how his government plans to deal with Italy’s precarious public finances and anemic growth rate, but to denounce as defamatory charges against him of sex with an underage prostitute, and to insist that he has never paid for sex in his life.
The episode involving Moroccan night club dancer Karima el-Mahroug—better known as Ruby the Heartstealer (in Italian, it’s Ruby Ruba-cuori)—is only the latest in a string of racy stories about Berlusconi’s private life, involving parties with young women at his various homes. In short, like the Italian male stereotype (as in, for example, Dino Risi’s 1962 cult movie Il sorpasso ), Berlusconi loves the ladies. But Ruby was seventeen when he is supposed to have paid her for sex; so in May (postponed from April because of commitments of state, like the Libya situation), he goes on trial in a Milan court. The age of consent in Italy is fourteen, but paying a prostitute who is under eighteen is a criminal offense.
And yet Italians are by no means as critical of their prime minister’s behavior as one might reasonably expect. Polls taken in February, at the height of the scandal, showed Berlusconi’s popularity had dropped to around thirty-five percent. Compare that to Bill Clinton’s during the Monica Lewinsky impeachment, when only twenty-three percent of Americans thought the president had “high personal and ethical standards.” And incidentally, the opposition has made no move to censure Berlusconi in Parliament, possibly because, as a poll by the state radio and television station RAI shows, fifty-nine percent of Italians want Berlusconi to remain in office until the end of the government’s term in 2013.
Berlusconi has lost the support of his main coalition partner, Gianfranco Fini’s post-fascist party, but still has a majority, though it’s a slim one in the lower house. He does not need to call an election, but the widely accepted view is that, despite the squalor surrounding his reputation, if he did call one, he would win a fourth term.
Renato Mannheimer, one of the leading pollsters, attributes this peculiar disconnect in Italian politics to two factors: Many Italians do not see a practical alternative to re-electing him, and voters seem to be indifferent to the latest sex allegations—largely based on bugged phone conversations—because, with Berlusconi, such stories are par for the course.
While it’s true that the center-left alternative is divided and engenders very little public enthusiasm, Italian voters regard Berlusconi as irreplaceable in part because his own extensive media empire never stops telling them so. There’s a third factor: Italians give him credit for introducing something previously unknown in Italian governments—longevity. From 1945 to 1990, Italy had a succession of more than sixty governments, almost all of them coalitions and some lasting no more than a few months.
The main government party in those years was the right-of-center Christian Democrats. It had strong US backing, the main American objective being to stop the Communists from gaining power in Italy despite the fact that in every election the Italian Communist Party routinely got more votes than any other single party. To shut out the Communists, the runner-up Christian Democrats cobbled together an endless series of often quarrelsome coalition governments with smaller parties, which would inevitably fall apart.
Washington’s involvement in Italy’s electoral process ranged from State Department and CIA bagmen delivering suitcases of cash for campaign use to other forms of support. A former State Department officer once reminisced to this reporter how before one election in the late 1950s, he visited the archbishop of Milan to offer help. The archbishop, who happened to be Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI, replied that the Christian Democrats were losing the political battle in the streets because Moscow had delivered loudspeaker trucks or vans to the Communists, who were roaming the city broadcasting campaign slogans. The cardinal asked for similar vehicles so the archdiocese could mount its own counter-campaign. Within a week, the cardinal had his trucks, flown in from America.
Then came the collapse of the Soviet empire, and Washington’s interest in Italy waned almost overnight. In the early 1990s, there was also Tangentopoli, the huge bribery scandal that had severely damaged the postwar political system after one-third of Italy’s Parliament had come under indictment for corruption and illegal party financing.
Into the political vacuum stepped Silvio Berlusconi, with his Mr. Average Italian image carefully crafted by his own media. The fact that he was not a member of the Italian political class made him attractive to disillusioned voters: his new Forza Italia party won a slim plurality in 1994, but his generally conservative, right-of-center government lasted only seven months.
In 2001, though, Berlusconi won his second election victory: Italy is still a long way from single-party government, but Berlusconi’s second right-of-center coalition set a record by remaining in office until the end of its mandated term in 2006. No other postwar Italian prime minister had ever accomplished that feat.
In the 2006 elections, he lost by a very narrow margin to his main political challenger, Romano Prodi, who formed a left-of-center government. But Prodi was forced to resign two years later. Berlusconi won the 2008 election and has been in office since. In reality, Berlusconi’s governments have achieved little of substance, but Italians have come to regard his ability to stay in office as a sign of their country’s political maturity; and with voting compulsory in Italy, Italians appreciate his longevity, which means that they don’t have to keep going to the polls every few months, as in the past.
B erlusconi’s brashness and flamboyance was also an antidote to the closed world of Italy’s somber, reclusive politicians and their so-called linguaggio politico (“political language”), whose codes only they understood. Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro was grabbed the Red Brigades (who later assassinated him) as he returned home on the usual route from the Mass that always started his day. Giulio Andreotti’s personal life remained out of the limelight even though he was prime minister seven times and an insider of both the Vatican and—it’s said—the mafia. The Italian Communist Party’s titled leader, Enrico Berlinguer, spent his weekends out of the public eye, running his sprawling baronial estate in Sardinia. As for the political language, Moro once famously explained an informal cooperation agreement with the Communists as convergenze parallele (“parallel convergences”).
Many Italians were secretly delighted when Berlusconi snapped insults at the Germans and the French, and shouted a casual greeting across the room to President Barack Obama during a G20 summit reception at Buckingham Palace. (“Why does he have to make so much noise?” complained Queen Elizabeth.) To the delight of the Bush neocons, he also set about reviving US-Italian relations by volunteering Italian forces for Iraq and Afghanistan. An appreciative George W. Bush gave him a leather bomber jacket at Camp David—but it was too small.
Berlusconi’s opposition, the center-left Democratic Party (PD) consists of two strange bedfellows, former Communists and former Christian Democrats, who not surprisingly find it difficult to agree on clear common policies—and voters know it. But the core problem may not be policies but personalities, says columnist and literary critic Alfonso Berardinelli. The party’s leading figures, Massimo D’Alema and Walter Veltroni, convey the impression “of being too good for the electorate, snobbish, presumptuous, and hypocritical,” he says. “Berlusconi infuriates the left because he is protean, over the top, unsophisticated, and predictably unpredictable.”
Every one of those faults is reflected in the Ruby Heartstealer case. In addition to the prostitution charge, Berlusconi also faces a second indictment of abuse of power because when Ruby was arrested for shoplifting he allegedly urged the police to release her because she was a cousin of Egypt’s then President Hosni Mubarak and her detention risked causing an international incident. Berlusconi has justified this action by saying that Ruby herself, whose parents emigrated from Morocco to Sicily, had told him of the relationship. Or did he make it up? Recent Italian press reports revealed that a week before Ruby’s arrest in May 2010, Berlusconi had actually talked about her to Mubarak himself at an official dinner for the visiting president. No, Mubarak replied, Ruby was not his cousin. The exchange was confirmed by some officials present, including Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. But Mubarak was referring to another Ruby altogether, leading Egyptian pop singer Rania Hussein Mohammed Tawfik, who is also known as Ruby.
It was Ruby—Ruby Heartstealer, that is—who revealed the origin of the term “bunga bunga” to describe parties held in Berlusconi’s home, in which the prime minister allegedly cavorted with nude young women. According to what the left-wing anti-Berlusconi newspaper La Repubblica says were leaked depositions taken from various women, the Moroccan dancer told judicial investigators Berlusconi had borrowed “bunga bunga” from Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi—and that it described the same goings-on in Italy that took place in Tripoli’s dens of iniquity. “That evening Berlusconi told me that the bunga bunga was a harem that he copied from his friend Qaddafi in which girls strip off and have to give him ‘physical pleasures,’” said Ruby. Berlusconi countered with his own description in a recent television press conference. “Bunga bunga,” he said, “means let’s enjoy ourselves, let’s dance, let’s drink . . . it’s my vision of living.”
Since the Libyan turmoil, “bunga bunga” may be the sole remaining vestige of a once-close friendship between Berlusconi and Qaddafi. Last year the Italian prime minister laid out the red carpet for Qaddafi and signed a bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation with Libya that included a nonaggression clause. On February 26th, however, Berlusconi said Qaddafi had “lost control of the situation” and had to go, and the Italian government canceled the treaty on the grounds that the Libyan state no longer existed.
B ut “bunga bunga”—or its implications—represents Berlusconi’s gravest legal challenge. The worst-case scenario for him would be to be found guilty of both charges and face prison sentences of up to fifteen years. Will this be the fatal blow to his political career that his enemies are hoping? By his own count, the prime minister has faced more than a hundred court cases since entering politics and has never been definitively convicted. He has vowed to attend the trial to refute the charges, and to a great many Italians it seems unlikely that the ultimate escape artist will finally be nabbed.
By originally picking April for the hearing the court was in effect putting space between the trial and the main one hundred and fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Italy’s unification. March 17th, the day in 1861 that Italy came into being as one nation, was due to garner a vast number of events throughout the country—although not in most of the Bolzano-Bozen Province near the Austrian border, always somewhat alienated from the rest of the country due to its large German-speaking minority. A number of foreign heads of state were invited to attend commemorative ceremonies in Rome. To have the prime minister on trial at the same time would have been a considerable embarrassment. But it would also have increased the temptation to think that Italy itself was on trial, due to the large groundswell of public indifference to the scandal surrounding the prime minister’s office.
By coincidence, too, this year is also the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the movie La Dolce Vita , Federico Fellini’s mordant look at the seamier side of Italy’s postwar economic miracle. If Berlusconi had not already existed, Fellini would probably have invented him in one of his movies. In fact, he almost did. When he died in 1993, the neorealist filmmaker was working on a script about a wealthy Italian businessman who buys Venice and renames the Canal Grande—the Grand Canal—Canal Cinque. Berlusconi’s flagship television station is called Canale Cinque.
Roland Flamini worked for Time magazine from 1968 to 1994, by turns covering Europe from London and serving as a correspondent, editor, and bureau chief in Rome, Bonn, Paris, Lebanon, and Jerusalem. He now reports for various publications.