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Italy's leader digs in amidst troubling silence from allies and the Catholic Church, as a sex scandal involving underage prostitutes may pose the gravest threat to his 15-year hold over Italian public life.


Silvio Berlusconi (Elena Torre)

The 74-year-old prime minister vehemently denies any wrongdoing after prosecutors allege that he had sex with a "significant" number of prostitutes, including at least one underage girl, at his villa in Milan. Prostitution is not a crime in Italy, but abetting it is. Meanwhile, the drama of whether Silvio Berlusconi can survive politically is playing out in the marbled halls of the Italian capital.

ROME - Right now, there are two faces to the Berlusconi machine. On the one hand, the Prime Minister is on the attack, head down, with no apparent hesitation. Yet even among some important partisans in the Italian leader's camp, there are those who hope he takes a step back, but no one has the courage to suggest this to him. They hope that his right-hand man, Gianni Letta, might make such a plea, though it is impossible that the faithful under-secretary to the prime minister would counsel his boss to prepare for his succession in the face of criminal prosecution.

On Monday, there was a procession of leaders from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL) to meet Letta, who advised everyone to remain united and compact around Berlusconi. He insisted that there are no actual crimes in question, that a trial would not stand, and that all would be forgotten by next week. The repercussions on Italy's image abroad are the only real worry, not domestic consequences.

A cabinet minister notes that the accusations of sexual escapades have the effect of radicalizing public opinion both for and against Berlusconi, and that "eventually this has always brought more votes to (Berlusconi), seen as a victim of prosecutors who spy on him and his house guests, who get treated by the media as criminals."


In short, taking a step back? Not on your life. "If I resign, they'll tear me to pieces," he reportedly told associates on Monday. "I can't go to the magistrates, because they won't guarantee my rights." Berlusconi is convinced that the real objective of Milan prosecutors is to prevent him from the possibility of one day reaching the prestigious position of president of the republic, by raising a moral issue: "They want to prevent me from finishing the term, and get me out of the political scene as they did in the past with other leaders. But I will not finish like Bettino Craxi." Former Prime Minister Craxi died in exile in Tunisia, where he'd fled in the face of criminal charges.

So marching orders are, everybody keep your heads down to avoid "the mud", and wave the threat of early elections. Opponents, including a recently formed "third pole" of moderates, consider this an empty threat: there are ever fewer who hope for early elections, because the outcome would be so uncertain.

Berlusconi is most concerned about the silence of his allies, the once-separatist Northern League, which appears increasingly worried that a political tsunami could sweep away the federalist reforms it has been pushing in Parliament.

Another concern is the silence of the Church. The story of Ruby, the 17-year-old Moroccan exotic dancer, and the spicy details that have since emerged, is increasingly embarrassing. Berlusconi and his allies are afraid that they may be permanently abandoned by Church leaders and their constituents. Even if the prosecutors fail to prove the existence of a crime, the moral question remains. And that, for Italy and our international credibility, is the central concern for the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano. Letta has been in contact with Napolitano to confirm that the prime minister will continue to move forward with earlier plans to widen the majority by looking for new allies among members of parliament.

On Tuesday, Berlusconi's allies and lawyers are meeting to discuss strategy. The closest advisors are lining up to defend the boss until the end, even as some begin to wonder how long they can follow the logic of: "Samson dying with all the Philistines."

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