For Italians, EU vote is all about Berlusconi
With Italy's opposition in disarray, polls show the right-wing Berlusconi is the overwhelming favourite in a ballot that he has made a referendum on his premiership.Rome -- Silvio Berlusconi, under fire over his links to a lingerie model and corruption allegations, will look to shrug off the scandals by cruising to victory in next week's elections to the European parliament.
With Italy's opposition in disarray, polls show the right-wing Berlusconi -- often disdainful of the EU -- is overwhelmingly likely to emerge victorious in a ballot that he has made a referendum on his premiership.
"They’re not talking about Europe -- these elections will basically give Berlusconi a chance to test his popularity," said political scientist Marc Lazar.
"There's no election campaign," Lazar, a French expert on Italian affairs, told AFP. "People are talking only about Berlusconi, about his divorce and his legal problems."
No stranger to controversy during three stints as premier, the 72-year-old has been dogged in recent weeks by a swirl of rumours over his relationship with an 18-year-old blonde and the jail sentence handed down to his tax lawyer.
But far from being chastened, the ebullient leader has put his name at the top of his People of Freedom (PDL) party's electoral lists for the polls to be held June 6-7 in Italy.
The rules allow any party member to head electoral lists, though there is no prospect of Berlusconi renouncing the premiership in order to occupy one of the European Parliament's 736 seats for the next five years.
The two scandals erupted one after the other over the past three weeks.
In the first, his estranged wife Veronica Lario complained the premier’s suggested candidates for the polls -- including a former Miss Italy contestant -- were more notable for their physical charms than their political experience.
Only days after that outburst in the papers, Veronica Lario let it be known she wanted a divorce after seeing pictures of her husband presenting aspiring model Noemi Letizia with a gold and diamond necklace at her 18th birthday.
Berlusconi has denied any impropriety while remaining vague about the nature of the relationship with the teenager who calls him "papi".
In a recent interview with CNN, a defiant Berlusconi declared: "I will still have the Italians on my side and once again this accusation will act as a boomerang against the people who have started it."
While still facing flak over his ties to Letizia, Berlusconi flew into another firestorm when a Milan court spelled out its reasons for convicting his British tax lawyer David Mills of accepting a large bribe from the Italian leader in exchange for giving false testimony on his behalf.
Mills is appealing the verdict, which came with a four-and-a-half-year prison term.
The "Mills-Noemi effect" could damage the PDL at the polls, say some analysts, while others say it may discourage turnout, notably among staunchly Catholic voters.
But pollster Renato Mannheimer said Berlusconi's approach "is very effective for him."
Mannheimer, a sociology professor in Milan and a consultant for the leading daily Corriere della Sera, told AFP: "Never in Italian politics, or very rarely, has a personal scandal had much influence on elections."
Lazar agreed, adding Berlusconi would also benefit from the left-wing opposition's failure to shake off the hangover over from last year's defeat in national elections.
"In any other country there would have been a major political crisis (sparked by the twin scandals) ... but there's no one to challenge him," he said.
Indeed Berlusconi's centre-right PDL is tipped to win handily, with 38 to 40 percent of the vote against 26 to 29 percent for the main opposition Democratic Party (PD), according to the latest opinion polls.
The PDL scored 37.4 percent in last year’s general elections that returned Berlusconi to power for a third time since 1994.
The left, meanwhile, is expected to continue its slide from the 33 percent it scored last year.
The European parliament is the only EU body that is directly elected.
It passes pan-European legislation drafted by the EU Commission, as well as the commission's annual budget, which will be about 140 billion euros (195 billion dollars) in 2010.