Italian PM’s 75th leaves very little to celebrate
Rome: Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi marks his 75th birthday on Thursday with very little to celebrate.
Italy risks being engulfed in Europe's debt crisis, while Berlusconi himself faces daily calls for his resignation. And then there are his legal woes: four trials, the threat of more and his sex life splashed on newspaper front pages daily.
Bad news and personal embarrassments are piling up for the billionaire businessman-turned-politician, who can no longer count on allies to help him through the tough times. The latest internal government feud erupted on the eve of his birthday, with ministers fighting over who should be Italy's next central bank chief.
Add to that Pope Benedict XVI's recent call for "ethical renewal" in Italy, along with pointed criticism by the country's top Catholic bishop of the moral lapses of Italy's political class, and it's a very unhappy birthday indeed.
"This is a country in which form is terribly important, and what is coming out is way beyond the form," said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome. "So it's damaging the fabric of society as well as being damaging for the prime minister himself."
Berlusconi referred to the difficulties he's facing on the eve of his 75th, telling a television interviewer on Wednesday that the present he most wants is for the political bickering to stop.
"In such a difficult moment for the west, for Europe and for Italy, I'd like for everyone to put aside their differences and work together to relaunch the economy to bring Italy out of the crisis," Berlusconi told TG5, a channels belonging to his Mediaset media empire.
His optimistic appeal, however, belies what lawmakers have reported to be his mood these days: news reports said he has complained bitterly of feeling persecuted by prosecutors intent on ousting him from office.
Berlusconi is on trial in four cases in Milan, three of them concerning his business dealings and one alleging he paid a 17-year-old Moroccan girl for sex during the now-infamous "bunga bunga" parties with prostitutes and young women at his villas. Both he and the girl deny the charges.
This past week, he's been embroiled in a related case concerning the Italian businessman who paid the young ladies to attend the parties. Giampaolo Tarantini is under investigation in Bari for allegedly aiding and abetting prostitution.
Separately, Tarantini was arrested earlier this month on accusations he extorted hundreds of thousands of euros from Berlusconi in exchange for his cooperation in the Bari case to prevent the release of telephone wiretaps about the parties that would have proven embarrassing to the Premier.
But this week, the court ordered Tarantini freed and said it was actually Berlusconi who paid Tarantini and allegedly tried to persuade him to lie to magistrates about his role. The Premier hasn't been charged or placed under investigation in the case.
Berlusconi has long claimed left-leaning magistrates have pursued politically motivated prosecutions against him in a bid to drive him from office.
Despite his legal difficulties, Berlusconi's parliamentary majority appears solid: Parliament passed the government's austerity measures earlier this month and just Wednesday rebuffed an opposition no-confidence vote against the agriculture minister.
Berlusconi, who entered politics in 1994 and is on his third stint as Premier, has insisted he'll stay in power until his five-year term ends in 2013.