If Italian voters disapproved of Silvio Berlusconi's friendships with young showgirls and underwear models, it sure didn't register in the polls.
In the European Parliament elections, which wound up Sunday night, the Italian prime minister's centre-right Popolo della Liberta (PDL) party snagged about 35 per cent of the vote, well more than any other party. In second place was the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), with just under 27 per cent. Given the PD's efforts to turn Berlusconi's apparent obsession with women between half and a quarter his age into a scandal, this represents a defeat for the Opposition.
Why did the Italians not care about Berlusconi's desire to "frequent minors," as his wife Veronica Lario charged a few weeks ago, when she announced she is seeking to divorce her husband? Lario made the statement after learning Berlusconi had attended the birthday party of aspiring, 18-year-old model named Noemi Letizia. She was also a guest at parties hosted by Berlusconi at his Sardinian villa, where an enterprising paparazzo with a long lens snapped several hundred interesting photos. Berlusconi screamed invasion of privacy and had prosecutors seize the photos. But five escaped and were published last week in the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Among them are pictures of topless women cavorting around the villa.
Italians shrugged off the wannabe-scandal because, it appears, frolicking with semi-clad women who are not your wife is no big deal; it's accepted as a perk of political power. Indeed, the story was bigger outside of Italy than within (though Berlusconi's foes would say that's at least partly because Berlusconi, through ownership of the family's Mediaset channels and his role as head of the government, essentially controls most of the Italian TV market).
Italians wanted to know why their prime minister was singled out for alleged bad behaviour -- Berlusconi denied having a sexual relationship with Letizia -- when it is so blatantly common elsewhere, and often ignored or played down by the local media. In a column called "Cherchez la femme," journalist Pierluigi Battista noted that Francois Mitterrand's secret second family, whose existence was known, but not reported, by the French press, didn't slow down his career. Ditto the Kennedys' infamous womanizing. And don't forget Nicolas Sarkozy, who split from his wife so he could marry the former model Carla Bruni.
While Berlusconi has survived the Letizia and Sardinian party affairs, one little thing could come back to bite him. The Italian taxpayers' association wants to know how all those lovely women got to Sardinia. The answer: In the prime minister's official plane. Prosecutors are now investigating whether the flight was a possible misuse of public funds. Berlusconi, for his part, does not seem to be worried. He said the prime minister is free to take guests with him. The investigation, he said, will be "swiftly shelved."