Sex scandal aside, morals may be Silvio's undoing


OPINION:The testimony of a call girl is less likely to bring down Italy’s prime minister than a former ally’s scruples, writes PADDY AGNEW

NOTHING COULD be more typical of the “Berlusconi years” than that on the eve of a potentially important parliamentary vote today (not to mention a working lunch with British prime minister David Cameron), Italy’s 73-year-old millionaire prime minister Silvio Berlusconi should yesterday find himself involved in another sex scandal.

Intriguingly, however, it may well be that Berlusconi will face much more serious problems this autumn from conventional political problems than from tabloid gossip.

The latest scandalous accusation against him, reported by Rome daily La Repubblica, concerns testimony given to investigative magistrates by Bari-based call girl, 41-year-old Terry Di Nicolò. Her “four in the bed” testimony recalls the allegations made one year ago by another Bari-based call-girl, Patrizia D’Addario, who told tales of nights of sexual orgies in Palazzo Grazioli, the prime minister’s private residence in Rome.

Di Nicolò recounts a story that, by now, seems very familiar. She was contacted by Bari businessman Gianpaolo Tarantini and basically “engaged” to spend a night with the prime minister at Palazzo Grazioli, Rome. First, there was a formal meal and then there was a distinctly “informal” post-prandial moment. Asked by investigators, how she had spent the night at Palazzo Grazioli, Di Nicolò said: “I slept on my own for some hours and then for some other hours, I was with these two Roman girls and Berlusconi”.

No doubt the latest chapter in the life and times of Silvio, the Great Latin Lover, will generate much negative comment in the coming days but it is at least arguable that, in an Italy almost indifferent to stories of his sexual peccadilloes, the prime minister will in fact be caused much more problems by the burgeoning political crisis within his own Freedom People party (PDL). That crisis erupted last week when the prime minister basically kicked his long-time political ally and PDL co-founder, speaker of the Lower House, Gianfranco Fini, right out of the party.

The point about Fini is that he has (or had) been with Berlusconi right from the very beginning of his overnight sensational arrival in politics, when he won the 1994 general election with a “Forza Italia” party that was just months old. In that winning campaign, Berlusconi had basically allied his new party with two existing formations, the Federalist Northern League led by Umberto Bossi and the ex-Fascist, ex-MSI Alleanza Nazionale (AN) led by Fini.

Not only that but in the previous autumn, during an infamous news conference at the Foreign Press Bureau in Rome, Berlusconi had singlehandedly “rehabilitated” the ex-fascists, by saying that if he had a vote in the forthcoming Rome mayoral election, he would give it to Fini rather than to centre-left candidate Francesco Rutelli (in the end, Rutelli was elected mayor).

The point about this “endorsement” was that it brought the MSI in from the cold. Founded in 1946 from the ashes of the political legacy left by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the MSI throughout the postwar period earned a 5-6 per cent share of the national vote but had always been denied a role in any of the many diverse coalition governments of the period.

Having campaigned loyally for the last 16 years alongside Berlusconi, despite huge tensions with other Berlusconi allies such as the Northern League, Fini three years ago threw in his lot completely with the prime minister, allowing his AN party to become a co-founder along with Forza Italia of the new PDL. All of which makes Fini’s decision now to break with Berlusconi all the more earth-shaking.

For Fini’s de facto expulsion from the party has come after months of critical comments aimed at the prime minister, comments designed to progressively distance himself from Berlusconi. Significantly, too, Fini has chosen to make his stand on the “moral” question, arguing in effect that the government’s so-called “Gag Law” Bill on wiretapping, limiting press freedom and tying the hands of Mafia investigators, is simply one piece of Berlusconi ad personamlegislation too far, saying: “our electorate, millions of honest people who feel a debt of gratitude to magistrates and police forces . . . cannot understand how, in our party, respect for civil and legal rights becomes a request for immunity”.

To write off Silvio Berlusconi is a dangerous business. Over the years, premature political obituaries have failed to take cognisance of his unparalleled electioneering skills and his surprising political nous. Yet, there are at least grounds for speculating that maybe, just maybe, we are looking at the beginning of “the beginning of the end”.

The likely failure of the controversial “Gag Law” – technically speaking, it is still going through parliament but it looks dead in the water – has come at the end of a year when intellectuals, bloggers, a whole plethora of “movements” including the “Purple People”, not to mention the parliamentary opposition and prominent media organisations such as Sky Italia and La Repubblicahave all expressed virulent opposition to the measure. This could prove to be a major defeat for the populist prime minister.

Up ahead, other setbacks could lie in store. For a start, Fini’s new Future and Liberty party (yes, yet another new Italian party) can call on 33 Lower House votes. Fini has stated that, if and when he disagrees with a piece of legislation, he will vote against it. This could happen sooner rather than later.

That may not happen today, however, when parliament is asked to vote on a “no confidence” motion in Giacomo Caliendo, a junior minister accused of involvement in an alleged pseudo-masonic, “P3”, influence-peddling scandal.

For the time being, Fini may well opt to keep his powder dry. He, (and the centre-left opposition) are in no shape to face the early general election which Berlusconi says would have to be the only logical outcome, if and when his government is defeated in parliament. (Not surprisingly, given their disarray, the centre-left opposition would much sooner see a “technical” government put in place for a year or so).

Then, too, there is the consideration that Italy’s constitutional court may well abrogate yet another of the Berlusconi government “immunity” laws, introduced earlier this year, the so-called “legitimate impediment” legislation which suspends judicial proceedings for up to 18 months if the defendant has an “impediment” stemming from his/her government role. In November of last year and in 2003, the constitutional court threw out previous Berlusconi “immunity” laws, respectively the so-called “Lodo Alfano” and the “Lodo Schifani”.

If that happens again, then Berlusconi could find himself in the dock in at least two Milan trials, one relative to tax fraud and the other concerning the allegations that he paid his London-based lawyer, David Mills, estranged husband of former UK “Olympics” minister Tessa Jowell, a $600,000 (€450,000) bribe to commit perjury on behalf of his Fininvest group in two Milan trials in the 1990s.

All in all, it could yet be a difficult autumn for Mr B. Remember, too, that the last time one of his “historic” allies, namely Bossi, broke with him, that move led to the collapse of his 1994 government. History may repeat itself.

Paddy Agnew is The Irish Timescorrespondent in Rome