If I were to ask people in the United States to name a serious sexual scandal involving a senior political figure I imagine a goodly number would opt for Bill Clinton, formerly of the Bill and Monica Show. Oh, but that was nothing, even with the dissimulation and deception, blue dresses and all. I would ask you to think big and think large; I would ask you to think of Italy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Silvio certainly thinks big. At the moment the 74-year-old premier and publishing tycoon, who has dominated Italian politics for almost as long as Mussolini, a man whom he admires, is involved in no fewer than three corruption cases and a trial in which he is accused of paying for sex with an underage girl by the name of Karmina El Maharoug, of Moroccan birth.
Actually, she is better known to her many fans – the premier included – as Ruby the Heart Stealer, the stage name she uses in her profession as a pole dancer. Spotted by one of Berlusconi’s chums at a beauty contest, the beauty was hired to attend a party at the Premier’s house in Milan, there along with a number of prostitutes and showgirls, young women and old men.
There was only one problem. Ruby the Heart Stealer was alleged to have stolen, not hearts but a bracelet worth some 3000 Euros ($4300), by the girl with whom she was then sharing an apartment. Berlusconi promptly phoned the police station in which she was being held, saying that she was the niece of Hosni Mubarak, still president of Egypt at the time, and that she should be released immediately to avoid a serious diplomatic incident. He was later to claim that he had no idea that she was not the niece of Mubarak!
Ruby was duly freed and went on to what she later colourfully described as a ‘bunga bunga’ party, a reference to the sexual shenanigans she witnessed. Bunga bunga is now the talk of all Italy. When the accusations began to surface last autumn Berlusconi said that he had done nothing wrong and anyway liking beautiful women was “better than being gay.”
The Italians are an indulgent people who like their politicians on the light side, and so they indulged him, time after time, scandal after scandal. Earlier this year the London Times wrote an editorial saying that he really had to go for all the bad he had done. No, I responded, Italy is Italy; it’s a foreign country: they do things differently there.
For the rest of us politics is such a serious business; we need some diversion; we need some light entertainment; we need the ongoing farce that is Italian politics; we need silly, theatrical Italian politicians, a blessing on the simple, silly souls. Above all we need dear old Silvio, this septuagenarian King Canute, desperately trying to hold back the advancing tides of time, with dyes, hair weaves, bunga bunga and what have you.
But enough now seems to be enough; the Heart Stealer, a media sensation in Italy, one scandal too many. The show seems to be over. Last month Forzia Italia, the prime minister’s party, suffered a serious setback in the regional elections, even losing Milan, his power base.
Alas there is even more trouble clouding his sky. A series of referenda, including one on nuclear power, look like turning into a national vote of no-confidence. James Watson, Professor of Political Science at the American University in Rome, has said that it’s a critical moment in Berlusconi’s career:
It’s fairly clear now that there is a national reaction against him. There is considerable talk, even among his own people, about when he might step down and who could replace him.
Berlusconi may not have had sex with the Heart Stealer – the matter has now gone to trial – but the latest issue of the Economist, focusing on the premier’s financial affairs and mismanagement, describes him right across its front page as the man who screwed an entire country. The time has come, I think, for Tiberius to retreat to Capri.