Berlusconi Fiddles While Rome Burns

Beset by reports of a sex scandal, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused the press of falsehood. The charge is unfair: Nobody could make this stuff up.

At a joint press conference with visiting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Wednesday, Berlusconi was as defiant as ever in fielding questions from a Spanish journalist. The subject, of course, was hardly Italian-Spanish relations. Berlusconi was asked about an Italian businessman’s claim that he had sent or accompanied to the prime minister’s residence about 30 young women — some of whom had said they were willing to have sex, and most of whom were paid money.

“Are you jealous?” the 72-year-old Berlusconi snapped at the enquiring journalist, before insisting that the talk of prostitutes is a lie. “I have never paid a single euro for sex,” he went on. “The pleasure and the satisfaction come from the conquest,” he explained, and if one pays, there is no conquest.

When asked whether he would consider resigning, Berlusconi declared, “I think that I’m the best prime minister in 150 years of Italian history, by a long shot,” he declared.

He also rejected the notion that his sex scandals were damaging Italy’s image abroad, claiming that “many foreign tourists have already made reservations to visit Italy next year.” But the damage to Italy’s image is one of commentators’ major concerns, as every day the Italian press carries scathing media comments about Berlusconi from around the world. In an editorial Thursday, the Times of London called it “a sad comment on the state of Italian democracy” that Berlusconi was still Italy’s prime minister.

“It is puzzling that a man whose distasteful behavior as an aging Lothario, which would in any other Western country have long ago led to his downfall, still remains in office,” the paper said.

One reason is Berlusconi’s continued popularity, which he claims remains around 70 percent. Italian analysts dispute this figure, but it is generally agreed that many Italian voters have a sneaking admiration for his machismo. Another is the lack of an obvious alternative: The left remains leaderless and in disarray, having shown few signs of recovery from Romano Prodi’s defeat by Berlusconi a year ago. The Times editorial itself points out that there is no leader in Berlusconi’s own right-of-center coalition who could be sure of holding the government together.

Besides the country’s image, the other casualty is the business of government. The Times editorial has the title “Rome Burns,” an allusion to the Roman Emperor Nero, said to be one of history’s first pyromaniacs. He is supposed to have played his lyre while watching the city burn, having given orders to set it on fire in the first place.

Many Italian observers agree with the Time’s assertion that Berlusconi is spending so much energy and time fighting scandal allegations that the country’s real problems, notably the impact of the global economic crisis, are being neglected.