Berlusconi unhurt by scandal

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The Independent Online

The Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared to have shrugged off scandals about his love life, including accusations of having sex with an 18-year-old underwear model, and was set to clock up a double-digit victory over his nearest rivals in the European elections.

An exit poll released by Sky Italia last night gave his People of Freedom party almost 39 per cent of the vote. If confirmed when full results are released today, Mr Berlusconi would actually have marginally increased his party's share from the 2008 general election that handed him a third term in office. And this was achieved despite Noemi-gate.

That bombshell was dropped by his wife, Veronica Lario, last month when she announced she was filing for divorce. She not only publicly berated him for considering "show-girls" who were nothing more than "costume jewellery" as candidates for the European polls, but more damagingly, accused him of consorting with minors.

Mr Berlusconi's relationship with Noemi Letizia was swiftly thrust into the spotlight, and the 72-year-old was forced to publicly deny sleeping with the teenager. Then came news of a judicial probe into whether the premier had misused state aircraft to whisk guests to his villa in Sardinia. Next, photos emerged of topless women and naked men sunbathing at his luxury island pad. "This vote is a referendum on Berlusconi," declared the Italian newspaper La Stampa ahead of the vote. But despite heavy criticism from the political opposition and the Catholic church, the prime minister seems to have bounced back.

It is perhaps not that surprising. Over the years, a string of corruption probes as well as frequent diplomatic gaffes have failed to dent Mr Berlusconi's popularity at home, even though they have produced much hand-wringing abroad.

Italian voters are apparently equally nonplussed by his latest alleged antics. They are not angry about the dire state of the economy but impressed by his tough line on immigration. And the battered centre-left opposition, the Democratic Party, continues to flail, netting only 26.5 per cent of the vote, according to the Sky Italia exit poll.