Are Italians finally getting tired of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose repeated gaffes, conflict of interest and entanglements with the law have brought shame and opprobrium upon his countrymen’s heads?
An estimated 3,50,000 people marched through the streets of Rome on Saturday in the first major popular demonstration against Mr. Berlusconi (74), Italy’s richest man, whose image has been tarnished by sex scandals linking him to prostitutes and teenaged girls and who is fighting several legal battles on charges of corruption and fraud.
“No B Day” had the air of a carnival with huge effigies of Mr. Berlusconi being paraded through the streets of the Italian capital. Marchers called for Mr. Berlusconi’s resignation claiming he was spending all his time looking after his personal interests and fighting in the courts and ignoring the job he was elected to do. Several opposition politicians stayed away from the rally saying they wanted it to be a genuine grassroots protest.
For several moths now, Italy’s European partners have watched developments in that country with dismay, as a majority of Italians continued to look upon the Prime Minister’s shenanigans with indulgence and even a degree of pride. Mr. Berlusconi’s unabashed, freewheeling style made many a European leader wince but his compatriots appeared to stand solidly behind him.
All that now appears poised to change. Demonstrators expressed anger over the billionaire’s alleged conflict of interests, citing laws they say were tailor-made to shield the Premier from prosecution for corruption and fraud in connection with his vast financial interests in real estate, sports and the media.
Mr. Berlusconi’s personal lifestyle has also caused concern, especially among devout Catholics. Mr. Berlusconi’s wife has filed for divorce citing his continued adultery and extramarital relationships with very young women.
A southern Italian businessman told investigators he procured some 30 attractive young women for parties and dinners at Premier’s Rome residence and Sardinian villa. Mr. Berlusconi has denied ever paying for sex and blames his judicial woes on prosecutors he claims belong to the left-wing opposition.
Two months ago Italy’s Constitutional Court struck down a law giving the top four functionaries — the President, Prime Minister and the Heads of the Senate and the National Assembly — immunity from prosecution while in office.
As a result, cases against him were taken out of moth balls. In the bribery case, Mr. Berlusconi is charged with paying British lawyer David Mills, the estranged husband of British Minister Tessa Jowell, $600,000 in 1997 to withhold incriminating evidence about the activities of his broadcasting empire Mediaset.
The other trial is for tax fraud and false accounting in the acquisition of television rights by Mediaset.
Over the week-end Mr. Berlusconi got some respite with the arrest of two top mafia bosses. “This is the best response to all the slander made by irresponsible people who, by doing this, are only slinging mud,” he said.
Earlier in the week, a mob informant, testifying at the appeal of a Berlusconi associate in Turin, hinted that the Prime Minister had helped the Mafia. Marcello Dell’Utri, a Senator with a long relationship with Mr. Berlusconi, is appealing his conviction and seven-year prison sentence for dealings with the mafia.