Video produced and reported by Fulvio Paolocci and Angelica Marin in Rome.
ROME, Italy — Standing among the fresh artichokes and plump tomatoes he sells six days a week in a small piazza in Rome, Alfredo Esposito may have unwittingly revealed the secret of Silvio Berlusconi’s political survival.
“Bless him! I am jealous,” he says with a grin. “ I go home to one woman every night. He has 24 women to choose from — I should be so lucky.”
Esposito is referring to "bunga bunga," a quaint term used to describe the lewd after-dinner parties the Italian prime minister is accused of hosting at his villa outside Milan last year.
According to a 389-page dossier of wiretaps and interviews prepared by Italian prosecutors, in Berlusconi's underground salon dozens of bare-breasted young women sat in the prime minister’s lap, kissed one another or stripped off kinky costumes before their 74-year-old host selected one or two to share his bed.
“The girls would take their clothes off and leave their breasts exposed,” one unidentified guest told prosecutors. “Once undressed, they would take turns going up to Berlusconi who was seated on the sofa and rub themselves up against him or let him touch them.”
One guest described the scene as an “orgy,” while another said it was more like a “brothel.”
The Italian prime minister has survived several sex scandals but is now facing serious charges of underage prostitution and extortion that could ultimately bring him down.
The sensational charges center on his alleged relationship with teenage belly dancer Karima El-Mahroogh, known as Ruby the Heart Stealer. Prosecutors have been told she was 17 when she was seen doing a topless pole dance at a party at Berlusconi’s opulent home last year and claim she visited him a dozen times between February and May.
The age of consent in Italy is 14, but it is a crime to pay for sex with a girl under 18. The prime minister has denied paying for sex with the Moroccan-born teenager, and Ruby told an interviewer on the leader’s own TV network that he “never laid a finger” on her even though he gave her 7,000 euros and gifts. Wiretaps show she also asked for 5 million euros to keep their affair a secret.
The latest scandal has provoked outrage from the opposition, the Catholic Church, business leaders and feminists. Even Pope Benedict XVI called for stronger moral leadership in a rare move widely seen as an apparent comment on the scandal.
“We are calling for the immediate resignation of the prime minister,” said Chiara Volpato, a Milan sociologist who spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to have world leaders boycott the G8 summit in Italy after a previous sex scandal in 2009. She runs an informal group of academics called Donne della Realta (Women of Reality) who wish to counter the image of women reinforced by Berlusconi.
“We feel the need to voice our anger, indignation and the shame we are experiencing with the moral and political destitution around us,” Volpato added.
The question is whether the Harry Houdini of Italian politics can confound the critics and achieve a fete unlikely for a leader of any other Western democracy: escape prosecution and have himself re-elected for a record fourth term.
“I think more Italians care this time,” said James Walston, a professor of international relations at the American University in Rome. “What makes this different is that it’s very explicit, there is very little room for doubt. We have dates and places with descriptions of the parties. It is clear that Ruby spent time with him.”
Whether that is enough to bring down a billionaire businessman who controls a vast empire spanning property development, publishing and more importantly, the country’s three major commercial TV networks — and while in power the nation’s three state-run TV channels — remains to be seen.
“Not everyone in Italy is quiet or acquiescent about the moral destitution of Berlusconi and his friends,” said Volpato, a professor at the University of Milan-Bicocca. “With his control of the media, the major problem is that it is extremely difficult to find an outlet for dissent.”
A poll published this week by the respected Italian daily Corriere Della Sera showed that one in two Italians thinks the prime minister should resign. However, his People of Freedom party still has a 30 percent of the vote and he would probably be re-elected with the support of his powerful coalition partner, the Northern League.
As the prime minister prepares an aggressive legal challenge to the sex charges, there is speculation he may push for an early election and present himself as the victim of a left-leaning judiciary out to destroy him. Late Tuesday, he assured his political allies the current storm would pass and he would pursue his government’s program.
“He will not resign without defending himself, it is not in the man’s character,” said Sandro Malatto, a former managing director of General Motors’ French operations, who once shared business lunches with the prime minister.
While the opposition is in disarray, Berlusconi has lost the support of the Catholic Church and Emma Marcegaglia, head of Italy’s biggest employer group, who has already proposed an alternative prime minister. Even worse was the emotional tirade Berlusconi launched in a telephone call to a late-night TV talkshow on Monday that raised questions about his well-being.
Yet only a fool would dare to underestimate the prime minister’s charm or his capacity to appeal to the average voter. As Petulia Melideo from Rome said:
'”Unfortunately many Italians think ‘If I could make all that money and have all those women and not go to jail, then I would do it too. ‘ That’s what keeps him in power.'