He might now be tarred with a permanent criminal record, but Silvio Berlusconi is still calling the shots in Italy. It’s been a torrid summer, even by his standards. In June there was the conviction, to be appealed, for sex with an underage prostitute. The mogul is also facing 12 months’ house arrest or community service now that the Supreme Court has confirmed his conviction for tax fraud. And, worse, he’s due to be kicked out of parliament in September.
The latter has raised for him a nightmare scenario involving humiliation and legal danger in equal measure: without parliamentary protection, he could be picked off by magistrates for other suspected offences, such as bribing a senator to swap sides in parliament, paying a drug dealer to keep a lid on his links with prostitutes and low life in Bari and even an indictment for Mafia association.
But while fascination with women has got him into trouble, Berlusconi is counting on some close female associates to help save him.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi had his female security in red berets; Berlusconi’s version, Le Amazzoni, are the over-promoted female politicians in high heels who act as his political bodyguard.
One leading Amazon, Michaela Biancofiore, told La Repubblica last week that either the centre left blocked Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate or her party would pull the plug on the fragile left-right coalition; a position that the centre-left premier, Enrico Letta, described as “blackmail”.
Ms Biancofiore, 42, who this year published a book in which she revealed her feelings of love for the 76-year-old Lothario, right, is, like all the Amazzoni, always ready to throw herself into the path of a political bullet on his behalf.
After Berlusconi’s definitive conviction at the start of this month, she told the BBC: “The Italian people are in love with Berlusconi because he’s an innocent.” Having argued with her on a TV talk show, I can attest to the fact that she appears to believe what she’s saying. She has even declared she will take up Berlusconi’s “persecution” by Italy’s “communist” magistrates with the EU Court of Human Rights.
The former equality minister-cum-topless model Mara Carfagna, 37, is another who’s marshalling save-Berlusconi forces and calling on a clearly appalled president, Giorgio Napolitano, to issue an unlikely pardon. And often at her side is the ex-education minister Mariastella Gelmini, 42, who is a constant pro-Berlusconi fixture on the nation’s TV screens.
But if La Biancofiore is the most ridiculous Amazzone, Ms Carfagna the most glamorous and the whining, humourless Ms Gelmini the most irritating, there can be no doubt who is queen of their tribe the truly formidable and, many would say, truly ghastly, Daniela Santanche.
This political beast in Roberto Cavalli leopard-print silk is ever ready to tear into opponents of the Boss and takes no prisoners. It was Ms Santanche, 52, who tweeted on the eve of the definitive tax fraud conviction: “Tomorrow could be the last day of democracy.” Last week, she clawed a fellow right-wing parliamentarian, the unsavoury Maurizio Gasparri, tweeting: “One thing’s certain, he’s never going to die from too much work.”
Armed with an apparently non-existent masters degree from Milan’s prestigious Bocconi University, Ms Santanche appears grotesque and shameless to many Italians. Her influence, however, is undeniable.
It is she who has led the hawkish view in Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Freedom party that the mogul should let the government collapse rather than accept being kicked out. And despite concerns from business leaders that political instability would be disastrous just as a weak economic recovery is in sight, this hawkish view appears to be the one to which Berlusconi is turning.
The media tycoon is, of course, a genius in the use and abuse of television, and employs the attractive faces of Ms Carfagna, Ms Gelmini et al as a foil to the hoary old mugs of both sexes fielded by the centre left. Italy, is, after all a visual nation.
Helped by his hangers-on, glamour pusses and sycophants, Berlusconi is still calling the shots in Italy. He has built and funded the morally tottering edifice that they are all perched on. And they will defend him come what may.
Ms Santanche articulated the prevailing philosophy a couple of years ago when it emerged that she had pulled strings to get her 25-year-old niece a lucrative job with the Lombardy regional government. She did not deny it but merely said, “That’s what everyone else does”, the “Cosi fan tutti” defence used by Berlusconi’s corrupt mentor Bettino Craxi.
The centre-right appears willing to put the interests of one convicted criminal above those of an economically moribund country, and it is the Amazons leading the charge.