Italy PM fears political fallout from spat with wife

ROME: A combative talk show appearance by Silvio Berlusconi to reject his estranged wife’s charges of “frequenting minors” suggests the Italian leader fears political fallout from their public row, analysts said on Wednesday.

“He’s in serious damage control mode,” said political scientist James Walston. “He’s going to fight very dirty.” While the perma-tanned prime minister is well-known for surrounding himself with attractive young women while his second wife Veronica Lario has stayed mainly out of the public eye, “he was never accused of doing anything with a minor,” Walston told AFP.

The self-made billionaire Berlusconi, 72, went on the leading talk show late Tuesday to deny Lario’s charges linking him romantically to teenage aspiring model Noemi Letizia.

“I don’t frequent minors. Veronica fell into the trap of the left and some of the press,” Berlusconi said on the show watched by a record 2.7 million viewers.

The media tycoon reiterated calls for Lario, 52, “to say that she was wrong” to accuse him of “cavorting with minors” — in reference to his attending Letizia’s 18th birthday party.

“He’s a worried man because he’s been back-footed,” Walston, a professor at the American University of Rome, told AFP. “He’s been criticised by the bishops, which is serious.” On Wednesday, the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire reprimanded Berlusconi for his “self-declared weakness for actresses in the bloom of youth” and called on the three-times prime minister to mend his ways.

“Berlusconi has made an original move, going to (television presenter Bruno) Vespa to repair the damage from the bishops’ attacks,” editorialist Curzio Maltese wrote in the left-wing daily La Repubblica.

Vespa is a longtime friend of the prime minister, and could be trusted to provide a “friendly place to talk,” Walston said, adding of the broadcast: “Nobody asked him the basic questions: when did you go out with her, where did you go, how many times?” Dismissing Vespa as someone who “purports to be an independent journalist,” Walston said he showed “utter sycophancy” towards the premier during the broadcast.

Maltese agreed: “For a vague idea of journalism, just recall the kind of questions posed to (US President) Bill Clinton by his interviewers in the Monica Lewinsky affair,” he wrote in La Repubblica.

Berlusconi blamed the public row with Lario on a media-fuelled “left-wing plot” a month ahead of European Parliament elections. “What is certain is that the PM is aware of the seriousness of the crisis (and wants to) reassure his electorate,” said Stefano Folli of Il Sole 24 Ore.