Bitter 75th birthday for beleaguered Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi listens to a colleague during a debate at the lower house of parliament in Rome...
Silvio Berlusconi listens to a colleague during a debate at the lower house of parliament in Rome. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Given his declared taste for beautiful women, Silvio Berlusconi would probably not mind a sultry starlet singing him "Happy Birthday, Mr. President".

But as he turns 75 today, he and most Italians are in no mood for celebrations that might evoke the day when Marilyn Monroe famously sang the song for John F. Kennedy in 1962.

The prime minister - whose title, to Italians, is president of the council of ministers - did attend a birthday party on Wednesday evening. But Italian media said his speech to friends was marked by familiar, defensive jibes at his many critics.

Italy's mounting economic difficulties and a creeping sense of social malaise have added to headaches for Berlusconi that include a laundry list of judicial woes, a fractious coalition and a Church that has suddenly turned against him.

There are growing fears that the Italian state, whose celebrations of its own 150th anniversary this year were muted by self-doubt, could suffer a Greek-style debt crisis, despite a stinging austerity package that will force Italians to pay more taxes, delay retirement and shell out more for health care.

In a front-page editorial on Thursday that seemed to encapsulate the mood of many in the country, the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero lamented a "systemic crisis" that had left most Italians disoriented.

"The aim of politics should be ... to develop society and restore to citizens a sense of authentic community," it said.

But it concluded that politics in Italy had become distant from the real needs of the people. Crime and corruption had fuelled a growing social malaise and a "widespread feeling of indifference", it said.

Italians are divided about Berlusconi, whose approval ratings, at about 25 percent, are at their lowest ever.

"I wish he would give a present to the whole country and resign," said Stefano Trinka, a Rome resident going to work in the capital's crowed Piazza Venezia.

Giovanna Molinari, who was walking along the same square arm in arm with her husband, is a die-hard Berlusconi supporter. She said: "Happy Birthday and good work, Mr. President -- that is, if they let him get any work done."

Berlusconi, now heading his fourth government since taking up politics in 1994 after making billions in business, has shown himself to have a knack for surviving scandals and diplomatic gaffes that would have ended the career of many another leader.

Piera Di Giacomo echoed the thoughts of many Italians when asked in Rome what she thought of Berlusconi as he turned 75, and why he had survived so long: "What should I say? As far as I'm concerned he is a likeable scoundrel," she said.

"Happy birthday."

The list of those Berlusconi would consider party poopers seems to be growing longer by the day.

Magistrates accuse him of corruption in three separate trials and in a fourth trial, he is accused of paying for sex with a minor.

In recent weeks he has faced damning criticism and more or less open calls to resign from pillars of the establishment including the Catholic Church, employers group Confindustria, the head of auto giant Fiat and newspapers including Corriere della Sera, Italy's most authoritative daily.

And now Berlusconi, whose eye for young women is legendary, has been caught up in a new investigation by magistrates. It is centered around bribes and blackmail linked to parties he is said to have hosted for young women, some perhaps prostitutes.

According to wire-tapped conversations published by Italian newspapers, he has boasted of "doing eight girls" a night and joking that with all his sexual activity, he was only prime minister "in my spare time".

Berlusconi was feted at a party on Wednesday night hosted by Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of the Fascist dictator. According to Italian media, he told his friends that all accusations against him are "mud" hurled by politically biased magistrates and that he would prove his total innocence.

A bitter "antipasto", or appetizer, for Berlusconi came four days before his birthday when Italy's top Catholic bishop issued a blistering attack on the ruling class, saying the country need to "purify the air" contaminated by licentious behaviour, scandal and corruption.

The unusual unveiled attack by Angelo Bagnasco, who stopped just short of asking Berlusconi to resign and painted a damning picture of an elite more concerned with its own survival than the good of the people, left Berlusconi and his government, according to political sources, feeling "stunned".

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