Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is fighting for his political life over his alleged involvement with a teenage Moroccan pole dancer.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has faced many scandals, but now he is fighting for his political life, besieged as never before over his alleged involvement with an underage Moroccan pole dancer.
The runaway Moroccan teenager, who calls herself Ruby Heartthrob, was arrested in May on charges of theft. Berlusconi intervened by calling Milan police headquarters and asking for her release, because he had been told she was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The teenager later gave prosecutors detailed accounts of parties she attended at Berlusconi's villa. Three people in the Berlusconi entourage are reportedly under investigation for aiding and abetting prostitution.
Berlusconi did not deny the phone calls made on Ruby's behalf and proudly defended his racy lifestyle.
"I work hard all day long, so if I get a chance to see a beautiful woman, I say it's better to have passion for beautiful women than being gay," he said.
The comment sparked condemnation by opposition politicians and gay-rights activists, and widened the chorus of demands that Berlusconi step down. Even Catholic Church officials, who had always supported Berlusconi, began to blame him for what they call a "miserable and desolate political climate."
Berlusconi then shifted gears, suggesting the whole affair could be part of a Mafia vendetta.
That claim was just what Oscar-winning comedian Roberto Benigni was waiting for. On national TV this week, with an audience of millions, he sympathized with the prime minister's plight.
"The Mafia has changed its M.O. -– they don't kill anymore," he said. "What they do is slip a couple of underage women into your bed. You realize, you could come back home and find three call girls in your bedroom? You disgusting Mafiosi, you beasts, how dare you!"
Berlusconi's travails come at a delicate time for the country's economy: Industrial production has plummeted, unemployment is rising and the country's debt mountain, one of the world's highest, continues to rise. There is virtually no foreign investment, and even the automaker Fiat is threatening to shut down all its Italian plants.
Emma Marcegaglia, president of the Italian Industrialists Association and a longtime Berlusconi ally, lambasted the prime minister, saying the country has lost its way.
"We must restore a sense of dignity and respect for our institutions, otherwise Italy will not come out of its paralysis," she said.
Berlusconi is facing the most serious challenge of his political career. After months of infighting, his former ally and co-founder of his political party, Gianfrano Fini, threw down the gauntlet.
"The time has come for Prime Minister Berlusconi to show political courage and hand in his resignation," Fini said.
Berlusconi has made it clear he has no intention of withdrawing from the political arena, but commentators believe this is the endgame of his government -– most say it's a question of months, if not weeks.