Berlusconi scandals weakening his grip on power

By Eric J. Lyman
0 CommentsPrint E-mail Xinhua, January 25, 2011
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Gianfranco Fini, the Italian politician who brought last year's political crisis to a head when he urged Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to step down in November, said again on Sunday that it would "be a good idea" for Berlusconi to resign, and called for a new round of elections.

The repeated calls from Fini are part of a series of developments which indicate that Berlusconi's fragile hold on power may be slipping.

In addition to Fini's remarks, opposition lawmakers have been criticizing the prime minister's handling of a series of sex and influence peddling scandals. A debate opened on Monday ahead of a confidence vote that could force one of Berlusconi's closest allies to step down from his ministerial post, and the government' s approval levels continued to erode.

At the heart of the latest crisis is the case of a Moroccan- born erotic dancer reported to have had sexual relations with Berlusconi as a minor. She was recorded telling a friend she had asked for millions of euros in return for keeping quiet.

The girl, Karima el Mahroug -- best known by her stage name " Ruby the Heart Robber," has since backtracked from some of the early reports. And in a televised address on Saturday, Berlusconi insisted he had "done nothing [he] should be ashamed of."

But the story will not die, and now it is appearing to start to weaken the prime minister's hold on power, which he won with a paper-thin victory in a Dec. 14 confidence vote in parliament.

Experts say that the latest comments from Fini may again make the former Berlusconi ally a rallying point for anti-Berlusconi sentiment.

It comes at a bad time for the 74-year-old prime minister, who is fighting charges related to his relationship with el Mahroug and a recent decision reversing part of a controversial immunity law that had protected him from prosecution.

He is also trying to spark growth in Italy's sluggish economy while preventing allies from deserting his coalition, something that could make his government crumble.

Berlusconi could lose at least one key ally this week: Sandro Bondi, the Minister of Culture, is up for a confidence vote that could force him to resign if he loses. The debate started on Monday and the vote could take place on Wednesday or Thursday.

Bondi, who is under investigation for two walls that collapsed in the ancient archeological site of Pompeii on his watch, is one of Berlusconi's most faithful allies.

In recent days, Berlusconi has unveiled several plans that could help him weather the storm. On Friday, he announced he would change the name of his political party from "People of Freedom" to "Italia," as a way to appeal to Italians' patriotism, and on Monday he said he would propose a new law that would resurrect some of the immunity law that courts stripped last week by making it illegal for magistrates to "pursue" elected officials.

Analysts say such a law would probably be struck down by the courts, but could serve to offer Berlusconi and his allies protection from prosecution for several months before then.

But the biggest thing working in Berlusconi's favor may be the lack of a popular alternative. While pollsters report that Berlusconi's approval levels have again sunk below 30 percent, few of his major rivals for power are much higher and none appears ready to mount a serious challenge to the long-standing Berlusconi.

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