Peter Popham: It will take more than a furious wife to unseat Berlusconi

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The Independent Online

Has Silvio Berlusconi faced down the threat to his popularity posed by his wife Veronica's request for a divorce, and her declaration that she could not stand him "frequenting minors"? The Prime Minister himself insists that he has, but his claim that 77 per cent of the electorate back him is empty bragging: the surveys done so far are too partial to go by.

But just in case there has been a significant peeling away by feminists and/or Catholics, he is not taking any chances. Over the weekend, in support of his interior minister Roberto Maroni's success in ambushing would-be immigrants halfway across the Mediterranean, and sending them back to Libya, he said that it was good to keep the foreigners out because "Italy is not a multi-ethnic country". Although that claim has been harshly criticised by the Roman Catholic Church, Mr Berlusconi knows that he is on to a sure winner with this theme.

His landslide victory a year ago was largely due to his success in playing the "security" card, and his populist nose tells him that a little xenophobia goes a long way in Italy now. Any slight wobble caused by the Veronica vote in the upcoming EU elections should be redressed by that.

Not shackled by commitment to an ideology of any sort other than a vague notion of "freedom", Mr Berlusconi roves restlessly in his quest for issues to guarantee him maximum support. And whatever issue he settles on, the Opposition is forced to follow, trapped into one unpopular position after another.

The Veronica factor matters politically because, for the first time since winning the election, the initiative was grabbed from his hands and he was bathed in a garish, ugly light. Within days, he was back on the attack, appearing on a political chat show where he took two hours of the nation's time to rebuild his image.

His grip on the nation's media is stronger than ever. And he is helped by the growing sense that, whatever happens, Italy is lumbered with "Emperor" Berlusconi for the next four years, probably followed by six more as president. Resignation is spreading through Italy's political body like hemlock. Resistance seems increasingly hopeless.