Berlusconi must answer allegations of womanising and questions about inappropriate behaviour. The quality of government is a not a private matter
The most distasteful aspect of Silvio Berlusconi’s behaviour is not that he is a chauvinist buffoon. Nor is it that he cavorts with women more than 50 years younger than himself, abusing his position to offer them jobs as models, personal assistants or even, absurdly, candidates for the European Parliament. What is most shocking is the utter contempt with which he treats the Italian public.
The ageing Lothario may find it amusing, or even perhaps daring, to act the playboy, boasting of his conquests, humiliating his wife and making comments that to many women are grotesquely inappropriate. He is not the first or the only one whose undignified behaviour is inappropriate to his office. But when legitimate questions are asked about relationships that touch on the scandalous and newspapers challenge him to explain associations that, at best, are puzzling, the clown’s mask slips. He threatens those newspapers and televisions stations that he controls, invokes the law to protect his “privacy”, issues evasive and contradictory statements and then melodramatically promises to resign if he is caught lying.
Mr Berlusconi’s private life is, of course, private. But as President Clinton found, scandal does not become high office. To his critics, Mr Berlusconi retorts that he still commands high popularity ratings, is very much in control of his Government and will not be intimidated by what he calls opposition attempts to smear him. Many may also say that Italy is not America: that the puritan ethic framing standards in the US has never dominated Italian public life, and that few Italians are shocked by womanising. This is patronising nonsense. Italians understand just as well as Americans what is and what is not acceptable. And like Americans, they regard a cover-up as contemptible.
Few media outlets in Italy are able to make this point without fear of retribution. But to its credit La Repubblica has continually raised questions about the Prime Minister’s relationship with the 18-year-old Noemi Letizia, whose birthday gift of a necklace was the pretext for Mrs Berlusconi’s divorce action. To most of these questions, on the lips of every bemused Italian voter, there has been no satisfactory answer. When and how did he meet her family? Did Mr Berlusconi ask for photographs from a model agency and initiate contact with Ms Letizia? What truth is there in reports that dozens of young women were invited to parties at his Sardinian villa?
Mr Berlusconi has promised to explain everything to parliament. But he can hardly have reassured his critics with his weekend injunction blocking publication of about 700 photographs purporting to show what went on at these parties. Nor is he helped by his hapless Foreign Minister, who attempted to defend his boss by pointing out that the age of consent in Italy was 14 — as if this were relevant.
Does it all matter? Some Italians will say no. Others will say it is no business of outsiders. But Italian voters, in the run-up to the European elections, ought to reflect on how their Government is run, on the candidates thought suitable for Strasbourg and on the level of prime ministerial candour during political and economic turmoil.
It concerns others too. Italy hosts the G8 meeting this year. Important discussions are taking place in that forum, where Western governments are pressing for greater co-operation in combating terrorism and international crime. Mr Berlusconi sees himself as a friend of Vladimir Putin. His country is an important member of Nato. It is also part of the eurozone, which is being tested by the global financial crisis. It is not only Italian voters who wonder what is going on. So do Italy’s nonplussed allies.