Page last updated at 15:05 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 16:05 UK

Defiant Berlusconi calm amid storm

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Berlusconi has been attempting to play down the clamour

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

For the past month Italy's prime minister has been attempting to refute allegations he had some kind of inappropriate relationship with 18-year-old Noemi Letizia, universally (and somewhat sneeringly) referred to as an "aspiring actress".

But Mr Berlusconi's potential headaches have now gone beyond Noemi Letizia.

The latest problems concern a set of photos taken at his private villa in Sardinia.

Although they have been seized on privacy grounds, some have now (inevitably) surfaced in foreign papers and have been dutifully reprinted by La Repubblica, a left-of-centre Italian opposed to Mr Berlusconi.

As expected, they show half-naked women at the prime minister's villa, though, so far, none of Ms Letizia without her clothes on.

They also appear to show a fully naked man whose identity cannot be conclusively established. There has been speculation that it may be former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.

To compound the problem, it is also alleged Mr Berlusconi used government military jets to transport non-government guests (including a musician) to the island.

Prosecutors are looking to see if this is a case of the misuse of public money, even though the rules were subsequently changed to allow non-official people to use such jets.

It is not an exaggeration to say that practically all other affairs of state have been expunged from Italy's media in the past month as these scandals have dominated coverage.

The economic downturn, European parliamentary elections and spats with the judiciary over different allegations of corruption have nearly all been trumped by Noemi Letizia and associated matters.

At the zenith

Will they see off Mr Berlusconi? Almost certainly not.

Mr Berlusconi is good at ducking and can rely on the counter punches of his media friends and others to fight back.

Noemi Letizia (file pic)
Noemi Letizia is said to see Mr Berlusconi as a father figure

Then there is the parliamentary opposition, or lack of it.

Having never really recovered from the defeat of their last Prime Minister Romano Prodi, the left-of-centre opposition here has been disunited and ineffective.

They cannot seem to coalesce behind a set of policies or leader to take on Mr Berlusconi.

And with the former National Alliance party voting themselves out of existence to join Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, the political right here has rarely been more unified and focussed.

In some ways Silvio Berlusconi is at the zenith of his powers.

He is personally popular; he has feeble political opposition; he has majorities in parliament; and he has many powerful allies in the print and electronic media (not least because his family own much of it).

He makes what foreigners call "gaffes", but, lacking malevolence, they rarely cause him problems among his own voters and arguably make him more endearing to them.

He was highly praised for his handling of the recent L'Aquila earthquake.

And he is not getting a rough ride for the economic downturn (even though Italy's GDP could shrink by 5% this year), as Italian banks and bankers are relatively conservative by nature.

All this does not inoculate Mr Berlusconi against the effects of the scandals. He is far from out of the woods yet.

The current situation first arose when it was mentioned by Mr Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, who said her husband needed help because he "consorts with minors".

It forced Mr Berlusconi to deny any improper or, in his words, "spicy" behaviour with Ms Letizia and he has pledged to resign "in a minute" if he is proved to have lied.

However, despite an army of reporters digging around for the past month there is not much by way of evidence to prove any wrongdoing by Mr Berlusconi.

The case for the prosecution rests primarily on the insinuations of his wife. But she and the prime minister have effectively been estranged for years.

Never dull

He came to office just over a year ago promising to get rid of the rubbish in Naples, sort out immigration and save Alitalia.

His supporters would say he has done all three (though the UN and others doubt that turning back boat loads of migrants from North Africa mid-ocean amounts to "solving" the immigration issue).

He is a chancer, a showman and a one-off who infuriates and fascinates in equal measure
Duncan Kennedy

But there are still chronic long-term problems in Italy, including poor infrastructure and organised crime.

His backers point to the military being sent to tackle the mob and the money being poured into projects like high-speed railways.

Claim meets counter claim, accusation meets response.

The most common refrain I hear here is that with Silvio Berlusconi there is never a dull moment.

That is true.

He is a chancer, a showman and a one-off who infuriates and fascinates in equal measure in an unending series of gripping, must-see, cliff-hanging episodes.

He has fallen off such cliffs in the past, only to have an imaginary emergency parachute of good fortune to save him from oblivion.

There are people seriously proposing Mr Berlusconi as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work around the crisis in Georgia and for improving relations with Libya.

He probably hasn't quite done enough to win that accolade.

But he should get some sort of reward for keeping us all enthralled.

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