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Antonio Polito: Berlusconi survives because opposition is unelectable

My British friends ask me how it is possible, with the scandal engulfing Berlusconi, that he did not lose the election? There are many reasons for this, all difficult to explain to a non-Italian.

One must first of all understand that we Italians are very tough on politicians who take public money but very tolerant towards politicians who pay with their own money. Remember the Mani Politi(Clean Hands) investigation 16 years ago? Italy's biggest political parties were destroyed by bribery scandals where they were receiving money. But because Berlusconi is very rich, he has always been the one accused of the lesser offence of paying out the cash. It is a charge the Prime Minister has always denied, whether it concerned British lawyer David Mills or the high-class escort who recently claimed she had spent the night with him for a large sum of money.

Sexual scandals, on the other hand, are regarded as far less serious than financial ones. Italians regard private life and sexuality very differently from the British – it would require a book to explain (and maybe even that would not be enough). The simple fact is that a man with many women is an object of admiration; this is not an attitude unique to Italy but perhaps we are less hypocritical about acknowledging it than some other nations.

Another reason for the electorate's failure to punish Berlusconi is the fact that to do so would mean elevating the opposition – and that is something Italians have no intention of doing. The opposition, led by the Democratic Party, is not yet electable. In the same way that the British electorate had no appetite for the Tories after Major, the two disastrous years of the centre-left government of Romano Prodi still burns in the Italian memory.

So those voters who do abandon Berlusconi tend to shift to his most combative ally, the Northern League. The one clear trend that can be discerned is an unprecedented strengthening of the xenophobic and anti-European party of Umberto Bossi. If Berlusconi should one day fall under a bus, his successor could be someone even worse.

The writer is editor of Il Riformista, a centre-left Italian newspaper