Berlusconi clings on despite new sex claims

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Italy's tawdry political circus yesterday entered what many are hoping will be its final phase, as Silvio Berlusconi made a last-ditch attempt to prop up his administration ahead of the seemingly inevitable spring elections.

The Italian premier sought to dispel fresh allegations that he had taken his pick of teenage girls at drug-fuelled adult parties, and of paying a prostitute, Nadia Macri, €10,000 for sex at his villas in Milan and Sardinia. Ms Macri has been questioned by Italian prosecutors.

"I will stay on despite the daily baseless attacks against my person, and I will stay on as long as Italians support me," said Mr Berlusconi in a speech at the opening of a national conference of his People of Freedom party in Rome. "In the history of the Italian Republic, ours is the government that has done more than anyone else, and we did it despite the international economic crisis," he said as he flagged up his government's achievements, such as university reforms and fighting the mafia.

He said he had sufficient support among MPs to stay in power despite his rivalry with Gianfranco Fini, the centre-right speaker of parliament.

Critics predicted he would limp on until the spring, but noted that Fini-supporting rebels would be able to block key pieces of legislation, particularly new laws aimed at protecting him from magistrates, who still want to see Mr Berlusconi in court on tax evasion and corruption charges. Days earlier, Mr Fini had called on the 74-year-old to step down should he fail to refute abuse-of-office allegation.

Mr Berlusconi is alleged to have lied to police in Milan, telling them that 18-year-old belly dancer Karima "Ruby" Keyek, was the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in order to secure her release after she was held on theft charges.

After signs of tentative bridge-building with the Fini faction on Wednesday evening, Mr Berlusconi sounded more strident during yesterday's speech, urging the Fini rebels to work with the government, or prepare for the ballot box. The premier said he was ready to forge a pact to see out his term until 2013.

Mr Berlusconi knows that his centre-right rival's parliamentary power base is too small for him to profit from an immediate general election. He also mocked the centre-left "who would leave Italy in the same position as Greece".

Leading commentators, including Sergio Romano of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, urged Berlusconi to reach a new accord with Fini to end the political turmoil. His comments reflect the views of the business lobby.

Emma Marcegaglia, the head of the employers' organisation Confindustria has said that elections now would threaten Italy's fragile economic recovery because "they would increase the level of political uncertainty".

"That's why no-one wants to be seen to actually pull the plug, and why this government, which by now isn't really governing, will probably limp on until the spring," said James Walston, a professor of political science at the American University in Rome.

It also emerged this week that a parliamentary watchdog wanted to quiz Mr Berlusconi over the risk to national security posed by his hard partying.

The nature of Italy's plight, as well as that of its Prime Minister, was summed up by Franco Pavoncello, a professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome: "He may survive this one, but he's getting weaker and weaker. This couldn't happen in normal, advanced democratic republics."

The latest poll figures suggest that Mr Berlusconi would still currently poll the largest chunk of the vote, almost 30 per cent – well up on the Democratic Party's 25 per cent.