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Postcard from Europe: Is Berlusconi giving Italy a bad name?

Many Italians are embarrassed by the sex scandals surrounding Silvio Berlusconi. But he hasn't been run off the political stage. In this Postcard from Rome, Nancy Greenleese takes stock of public opinion.

Silvio Berlusconi tucks his shirt in

Silvio Berlusconi has rejected calls to resign over sex probe

Italians of every political stripe often ask me what the rest of the world thinks of Berlusconi's alleged antics. I say that most Americans, with our naïve morality, are both fascinated and scandalized. The next question is almost always: do they know that we're not all like our prime minister?

Many Italians are ashamed of Berlusconi. Yet not surprised by his behavior. Since entering political life full-time in 2001, the billionaire media mogul has courted controversy and an endless parade of showgirls. His second wife began divorce proceedings a year ago after accusing him of frequenting minors. Milan prosecutors have accused the prime minister of paying for sex with an underage Moroccan belly dancer. He also faces possible extortion charges for getting the same girl sprung from police custody following a theft accusation.

So it's not breaking news that many Italians do not trust Berlusconi. More than 68 percent recently said they have little or no faith in their government in research completed by Eurispes.

Yet the jokester of the European Union, quick with the quips about Hitler, British cuisine and Obama's "tan," seems to always get the last laugh. Berlusconi squeaked by a no-confidence vote in December. He's made it clear that he won't resign over this latest sex scandal.

Many Italians say the Italian stallion rides on since there's no one suitable to take the reins. Berlusconi's former right-wing ally, Gianfranco Fini, mounted a challenge but is seen as too weak to lead. The prime minister's latest scandal offered an opportunity for the left to swoop in…yet it's in complete disarray. Italians, who follow politics as closely as football, say the left can't field a team - not to mention a star player. So Berlusconi - the ultimate player in every sense - stays on the field.

Nancy Greenleese

DW's Nancy Greenleese says many Italians are concerned about their image aboard.

Many Italian women fall into one of two squads – outraged or resigned. They talk often of feeling politically impotent. There's no "agenda for change" in a country where the prime minister controls the majority of the media. Renegade politicians and activists are trying to strike out on the web but their reach is limited.

The Berlusconi-controlled media often makes a mockery of women. The television networks offer a parade of scantily clad girls, a true boob tube. These women bring home paychecks as inflated as their lips in a country where more than half of Italian women are unemployed. The message is clear that it's better to strip than to study. Even Berlusconi's minister of equal opportunity is a former nude model and showgirl.

The few Italian women in prominent positions are raising their voices. The head of the leading industrialists' association, Emma Marcegalia, has said that Berlusconi "is not up to the job." More scathing comments emerged from the union leader Susanna Camusso. She asked hypothetically if a minor has a choice when beckoned to spend time with a 74 year old who could be her grandfather. She says Berlusconi has abused the power given to him by the Republic of Italy, adding that these are dark times for women in Italy.

And many women and men in Italy see no light at the end of this tunnel until at least 2012. There will be new elections yet, no new names have emerged. Except for Barack Obama. Italians often ask me if America's president would consider serving in Italy.

Author: Nancy Greenleese

Editor: Helen Seeney

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