Silvio Berlusconi can breathe again. After weeks of revelations about his private life – culminating in a prosecutor's decision to question dozens of young women on suspicion that they were paid to attend his parties – Italy's Prime Minister shrugged off the pressure yesterday, recording a convincing victory for his centre-right coalition in provincial and municipal elections across the country.
Beyond Italy's borders it may seem inconceivable that an elected national leader could comport himself like an ancient Roman emperor without facing grave political consequences. But within Italy, Mr Berlusconi's fallible humanity and the fact that he is not so obsessed with power play that he has no time for the sweeter things in life, are seen by many as points in his favour.
So while the centre-left celebrated their success in hanging on to much of its traditional "red zone" in central Italy, Mr Berlusconi's Freedom People Party managed to seize control of Milan and Venice. "If this is a victory for the opposition, we always want to lose like this," Mr Berlusconi crowed after results were in. "Before this provincial election, the Freedom People governed five million people [in the constituencies which voted]. Now it governs as many as 21 million."
In reality the result was more complex and nuanced, and according to Italy's top pollster, Renato Mannheimer, a steep rise in abstentions was the most important new development. Mr Berlusconi is also responsible for the fact that the popular opinion of politicians has sunk to a new low, 25 per cent of people associating politics with "disgust", and another 22 per cent with "anger".
And Mr Berlusconi is by no means out of the woods. Since his wife of 20 years, Veronica Lario, announced in early May that she was suing for divorce because of his endless womanising, the Italian Prime Minister has been engulfed by wave after wave of damaging revelations regarding his apparent obsession with surrounding himself with pouting lovelies.
One of the women invited to a party last November at Mr Berlusconi's home in a palazzo in central Rome, 42-year-old Patrizia D'Addario, said she was promised €2,000 (£1,700) to attend and when she saw the gaggle of women already present, said to herself: "But this is a harem." Photographs were released of two other women, Lucia Rossini and Barbara Montereale, supposedly taken by themselves in the bathroom in Mr Berlusconi's apartment. And now as many as 30 women invited to such events, many of them from eastern Europe, are being questioned by prosecutors as part of an investigation into the alleged procuring of prostitutes for these parties, while a business acquaintance of Mr Berlusconi, Giampaolo Tarantini, who Ms D'Addario said had paid her for attending the party, is also to be questioned in the same investigation. Mr Tarantini has denied the accusations, but publicly apologised to Mr Berlusconi for the embarrassment the affair had caused.
Yesterday, in an interview published in La Famiglia Cristiana, Italy's best-selling weekly, whose editor says he has received "many angry letters" about the Prime Minister's peccadilloes, Mr Berlusconi attempted to draw a line under his troubles. He claimed that Ms D'Addario had been given "a very precise and well-compensated mandate" to discredit him, but denied flatly that he had paid any of the women. "I have never paid a woman," he declared. "I have never understood what satisfaction there would be if not in the satisfaction of conquest... There is nothing in my private life for which I must apologise."
But the editor of the magazine thought otherwise. "It's gone beyond the limits of decency," Antonio Sciortino wrote of the affair in the magazine. "One cannot ignore the moral emergency, one cannot pretend that nothing has happened. Christians – as the letters from readers demonstrate – are appalled by this climate of moral decadence."
Taken together with recent criticism in the columns of L'Avvenire and by the Archbishop of Lanciano-Ortona, these words must send alarm bells ringing in the Berlusconi camp. No Italian politician with their wits about them likes to alienate the Catholic vote. So the scandal continues to fester, though Mr Berlusconi will not face another electoral test until next year. And already the accusations against him have obliged him to abandon or at least downplay his ambitions for the highest office in the land, that of president. "I have no interest in being president," he replied flatly when questioned about it in recent days.
This week three academics at Italian universities have gathered "hundreds" of signatures for a letter to the wives of G8 leaders due to arrive in Italy next month for the G8 summit, urging them to boycott the event because of "the way in which prime minister Silvio Berlusconi treats women both in public and in private".
The proximity of the scandal to the summit revives unpleasant memories for Mr Berlusconi: at a summit in 1994, during his first term as PM, he was served with legal papers alleging corruption. Soon afterwards he resigned.