Will anything stick to Berlusconi?

As the Italian PM's sex trial begins, the masses are sharply split

Will anything stick to  this guy?

Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

On a balmy spring morning in a Fascist-era courthouse last week, Silvio Berlusconi’s hotly anticipated sex trial opened in Milan. But unlike the late night “bunga bunga” sessions in which the 74-year-old Italian prime minister is accused of participating, the proceedings showed little staying power. After less than 10 minutes, Giulia Turri—the presiding justice in what local media have dubbed “the broad squad” of female judges—adjourned the trial until May 31, the next date the Italian prime minister has said he is available to show up in person to defend himself.

As the gavel dropped, the stuffy courtroom packed with European press erupted in laughter and a mixture of Italian, French and English chatter. “It’s bizarre, yes, but we are used to bizarre states of affairs in Italy,” quipped Beppe Severgnini, an influential columnist for the newspaper Corriere della Sera. He arched an eyebrow under a pair of spectacles and brushed a piece of lint off his grey summer suit. “This trial is like High Noon—a shootout between the judiciary and Berlusconi. Who knows what will happen, but someone’s going to get hurt.”

Not everyone viewed the trial with such detached amusement. Sitting nearby, a reporter for the left-wing newspaper L’Espresso slammed down his notepad in outrage. “As Italians, we have never experienced anything this bad—even Fascism was better than this,” he said. “Berlusconi is destroying the moral identity of the nation!”

At the front of the room, near a tile mosaic depicting the scales of justice, reporters thronged around lawyers for both Berlusconi and the young woman he is accused of defiling as a minor—the now-18-year-old Moroccan belly dancer Karima el-Mahroug (a.k.a. Ruby the heart stealer). Paola Boccardi, the teen’s lawyer, explained to reporters that her client will not be seeking damages against the prime minister, a move which would have, crucially, bolstered the prosecutors’ case.

This is a serious blow to Berlusconi’s foes, who are now faced with the task of convicting the defendant of having paid for sex with a minor who denies having prostituted herself in the first place—despite attending parties at his residence and accepting gifts of thousands of euros in cash. (Berlusconi is also accused of abuse of office for having called the police to say she was Hosni Mubarak’s granddaughter or niece—reports vary—in an effort to spring her from jail after her housemate accused her of stealing money.) “My client is just a scared 18-year-old girl who wants to live a normal life and get married,” said Boccardi. “She has suffered clear and serious damage from the media coverage. Men have approached her in the street and ask her to perform bunga bunga.”

Berlusconi’s lawyer was more circumspect, allowing only that his client intended to appear in court whenever governing the country did not make it impossible. On this particular day, the defendant was detained in an emergency cabinet meeting over the Libyan situation, although he did subsequently tell reporters that he had indeed given Ruby the equivalent of $87,000—to save her from a life of prostitution. The money was to go for laser hair removal equipment, for a beauty parlour the then-17-year-old wanted to open.

This trial is only part of the Italian PM’s woes. In separate trials, he is also currently accused of bribing a lawyer to lie in court, and tax fraud. And like its leader, Italy itself is a country plagued with problems. Unemployment here has spiked to 8.4 per cent, while youth unemployment is 28.1 per cent. This year’s economic growth is expected to be an anemic one per cent. Yet against all odds, many Italians still support their embattled leader, a man who has been widely accused of corruption and having Mafia connections, and whose wife, Veronica Lario, very publicly initiated divorce proceedings in 2009 after his questionable relationship with another teen came to light. Despite all this, his approval rating still hovers around 33 per cent. He’s been elected three times.

Opponents explain Berlusconi’s continued popularity by pointing out that the vast majority of Italians may not be fully aware of their leader’s faults. Some 70 per cent get all their news from TV, and the PM, who was a developer and then a media mogul before going into politics, owns three of the country’s seven national networks (his appointees control the three public ones). Critics say the scandals are barely covered on national television as a result. Supporters say he remains well liked because he’s a strong politician with real power who exemplifies typical Italian values. As the prime minister pointed out in one of his trademark quips, “Italians identify with me, I’m one of them. I was poor and am self-made, I love soccer, life and, like any self-respecting Italian, beautiful women.”

Last year, his fragile majority seemed to be on the brink of collapse after some of his coalition government’s MPs rebelled. The uprising was a result of both the so-called “Rubygate” scandal as well as Berlusconi’s attempt to push a controversial law curbing wire-tapping (the method by which evidence was gathered against him) through parliament. Women demonstrated in the streets, calling for the PM to resign. And yet, amazingly, the “Teflon tycoon,” as he is affectionately called, managed to firm up his government and withstand a series of scandals that would have almost certainly signalled the end of a political career in any other functioning Western democracy.

Part of this comes down to Italian political cynicism, combined with a peculiar national sense of humour. What would be perceived as galling vulgarity in the rest of the world is often an effective charm offensive here. In the days before his trial began, Berlusconi joked with media on the island of Lampedusa, where he was busy dissuading Tunisian migrants from seeking refugee status. “According to a survey, when Italian women were asked if would like to have sex with me,” he said, “30 per cent said yes, while the other 70 per cent said, ‘What, again?’ ”

If he is worried, Berlusconi is showing no sign of it.

On the street outside the courthouse, rows of armed carabinieri formed a loose barrier between a small group of Berlusconi supporters and a significantly larger crowd of some 70-odd protesters across the street. Two well-heeled women in designer sunglasses, Caterina Locci, 57, and her friend Anna Bottarelli, 60, told me they came downtown to express their support for their leader, who, they claim, is being unfairly attacked by the left. “It’s not true, all the sex stuff,” Locci said. “He likes women, he trusts women, he just wants to support and help them, that’s why he gives them money.”

As for his estranged wife, “She left him because she’s a Communist.”

A group of Catholic university students in their early 20s said they don’t care what their PM gets up to in his private life. “No one is obliged to go to bed with him, so why should I care?” said Elisa Simonaro, 22. These religious students’ views reflect those of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which has historically supported Berlusconi. While the Vatican itself has not directly commented on the prime minister’s current debacle, neither has it denounced him. Not surprising, since Berlusconi has always been a friend to the Church, providing aid for Catholic schools, restrictions on artificial insemination, and aid for Church-run businesses.

But across the street, protesters were more than just indignant—they were outraged and ashamed. As the crowd joined in a lusty rendition of Bella Ciao, an old anti-Fascist folk anthem, Francesca Vallardi, 57, who runs an import-export business, said that living under Berlusconi makes her embarrassed to be Italian. “I don’t understand how a woman could support him,” she said. “I want to go over there and say to his supporters, ‘How would you feel if Ruby was your daughter?’ Is being a woman just about being young and beautiful and available? Berlusconi seems to think so. He is an economic and moral disaster.”

Across town, at the Brutto Anatroccolo (“ugly duckling”) trattoria, a noisy roomful of Milanese locals tucked into buratta cheese with arugula, plates of spaghetti and artichoke omelettes. In this traditional hangout of Milan’s leftist intelligentsia, the talk was, predictably, all about Berlusconi.

Michael Day, Italy correspondent for Britain’s Independent newspaper, has lived in Milan for over three years now, and explained that while it’s difficult for foreigners to understand how a dodgy, seemingly corrupt and openly vulgar media mogul could be elected not once but three times, one actually has to live here, among the Italians, to truly understand it. “Despite the non-stop sleaze and his utter inability to make any positive changes during three terms, I think lots of them tacitly, at least, admire his cheek,” he said over lunch. “There’s a large degree of wish fulfillment. Millions of Italian men wish they were very rich and could have sex with as many attractive young women as they wanted to. And his alleged aversion to paying taxes chimes with rather a large part of the population. The sense of civic responsibility that in other countries might override these self-interests is in rather short supply in Italy.”

Indeed, Italy is a country of staunch individualists whose fervent belief in civil liberties is contradicted by their blasé attitude toward political corruption. The hangover of Fascism has left the country with a fatalistic attitude toward authority. There is a sense that both the judicial and political systems are corrupt, so why bother trying to change them? “He’s the big man, no one else can replace him,” is the sentiment heard over and over again here in Berlusconi’s birthplace, where he even owns the successful local soccer club, A.C. Milan.

Moreover, tax evasion in Italy is virtually accepted as standard practice. A nation of small businesses (83 per cent of which are family owned), most Italians are particularly unwilling to part with their cash. The Bloom­berg news service has noted that, according to a recent government study, taxpayers who aren’t required to have tax taken from their paycheques up front hide an average of 38 per cent of their income. Indeed, many Italians actually empathize with Berlusconi’s legal problems. But an increasing number feel their leader should be held to a higher standard. “He feels he can do whatever he likes and use his office for cover,” said Severgnini. “Which is crazy, since in most countries holding the highest office would force you to act transparently, but not in Italy.”

At present, Berlusconi’s political future hangs in the balance. The prosecution at his sex trial will be led by magistrate Ilda Boccassini, a crusader known as “Ilda the red” for her ginger mane and progressive bent. Just last year, she hobbled a Mafia syndicate by enacting raids that brought in 300 suspected criminals; she’s been described by Mafiosi as a “tiger.”

Boccassini has said that going after Berlusconi has been more difficult than going after the Mob. Indeed, the prosecution has their work cut out for them. Much of their case depends on hundreds of hours of wiretapped conversations between the PM and various women, lawyers and associates. George Clooney, who says he met Berlusconi just once, has been called as a defence witness, as has soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and a long list of Italian TV presenters, actors, journalists and politicians. Key to the trial is Nicole Minetti, a former showgirl turned dental hygienist who was appointed a regional councillor, and has been accused of pimping girls for the alleged orgies. Newspapers are reporting that Berlusconi’s camp is fearful Minetti may testify against Berlusconi, after wiretaps revealed her ranting that the PM was “a flabby piece of s–t” who was out only to preserve “his own flabby arse.”

A 30-minute taxi ride east out of the downtown core lies Milano Due, a suburb that Berlusconi conceived when he was still only in his twenties. How such a young developer could have possibly raised the money has long been a point of debate and suspicion. And it was here, in this planned community of terracotta condo buildings and tree-lined streets, that Berlusconi allegedly housed his stable of young models, dancers and call girls who served as entertainment at the now infamous bunga bunga parties. Earlier this year, the swank apartment complex at 65 Via Olgettina was besieged, first by police and later by journalists, hungry for a glimpse of the prime minister’s women.

A passing white-haired resident, Marcella Setola, 53, remarked that despite all the controversy, many people in the neighbourhood still support Berlusconi. “Most of the people here voted for him because he made this place,” she said. “It’s a very quiet, pretty neighbourhood, full of families and pensioners.”

She added, “There are no nightclubs or parties here.”