Berlusconi marks first year back in power under divorce cloud

10th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

Public accusations by Berlusconi's wife Veronica Lario that he was involved in an affair with a 17-year-old have put the normally ebullient prime minister, Italy's second richest man, on the defensive.

Rome -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi marks the first anniversary of his return to power on Friday still riding high in the polls but reeling from his wife's charges that he "frequented" a minor.

Before the scandal broke last week, Berlusconi seemed to be going from strength to strength, winning kudos at home if not abroad for his handling of the waste disposal crisis in southern Naples and for keeping the crippled national airline Alitalia in Italian hands.

But public accusations by Berlusconi's wife Veronica Lario that he was involved in an affair with a 17-year-old have put the normally ebullient prime minister, Italy's second richest man, on the defensive.

The perma-tanned Berlusconi, well-known for surrounding himself with attractive young women, went on a leading talk show late Tuesday to deny Lario's charges linking him to aspiring model Noemi Letizia, whose 18th birthday he attended last month.

Berlusconi, 72, claimed the left was "jealous" of his high approval ratings, himself estimating his popularity at 75 percent.

"I don't frequent minors. Veronica fell into the trap of the left and some of the press," Berlusconi said on the show watched by a record 2.7 million viewers.

Observers said the prime minister was especially shaken by a reprimand from the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire for his "self-declared weakness for actresses in the bloom of youth."

The paper called on the three-times prime minister of predominantly Catholic Italy to mend his ways.

Both Berlusconi and Lario, who is 20 years his junior, now say divorce is all but inevitable.

Criticised overseas for a series of gaffes including praising incoming US President Barack Obama's "tan" at home he has won points for his response to the April 6 earthquake in the central Abruzzo region.

Berlusconi became the face of the disaster that claimed nearly 300 lives, travelling to the epicentre L'Aquila daily for several days in a row, detailing the rescue and recovery efforts.

Late last month, to wide surprise, the conservative leader announced that the Group of Eight summit, originally set to be held in the millionaire's playground of Sardinia, would take place instead in L'Aquila.

The move would save some 220 million euros (300 million dollars) that could instead be spent on helping rebuild the earthquake zone, he argued.

"The move to L'Aquila was brilliant, it gave him sympathy," said political scientist James Walston.

The July 8-10 summit will give Berlusconi the chance to "take people to busy building sites and show the world how the prime minister builder is actually on the job," Walston told AFP.

Planning was already well advanced to welcome the heads of state of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States as well as around 25,000 officials, support staff and media to La Maddalena island off Sardinia.

Berlusconi more than defended his record on Wednesday, telling French television: "No previous government has done even half of what we have achieved in a year. That's why we have the admiration of the Italian people."

But French political scientist Marc Lazar said that Berlusconi was "still enjoying a honeymoon" while his centre-right government has so far failed to carry out significant reforms.

"He has tightened up security and immigration" and Public Services Minister Renato Brunetta has shown "willingness" to rein in the sprawling sector, Italy's biggest employer, "but without a major reform of the public administration," said Lazar, an expert on Italian affairs.

Brunetta's campaign against inertia in the administration and his rants against idle civil servants -- whom he alleges are mainly leftists -- have made him among the most popular members of Berlusconi's cabinet.

But he has also ruffled the feathers of many of Italy's 3.65 million civil servants and their unions, but especially the Italian left.

While clearly reeling over the Letizia scandal, Berlusconi on Wednesday managed to find humour in it, joking that he liked Finnish women "as long as they are of age."

Berlusconi had two earlier stints as prime minister, for seven months in 1994 and again from 2001 to 2006, a record for an Italian leader in a country that has seen more than 60 governments come and go since World War II.


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