Berlusconi grabs spotlight in Italy’s EU vote |

Berlusconi grabs spotlight in Italy’s EU vote

Associated Press Writer

ROME (AP) – Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has weathered corruption probes and public outrage at his tasteless quips – emerging each time with his popularity intact.

On Saturday, Italians can weigh in on whether the conservative leader has finally gone too far.

The country is picking its members of the European Parliament against a backdrop of accusations that Berlusconi had an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old model and that he used a government plane to ferry friends and entertainers to his vacation villa.

Despite a deep recession and rising unemployment triggered by the global economic crisis, the scandals have transfixed Italians and hijacked most of the campaign, turning the two-day vote to select Italy’s 72 European Parliament members into a referendum on Berlusconi. Results were expected Sunday.

“Berlusconi has succeeded in making the European election a plebiscite on him,” said James Walston, a political science professor at the American University of Rome. “Most Italians are voting on whether or not they like the government, there is very little that is a European issue.”

The uproar may have dented Berlusconi’s huge popularity, but there have been few indications that the monthlong storm would lead to an electoral defeat.

Polls are banned in Italy starting two weeks before an election. In mid May, with the scandal already raging, polls gave Berlusconi’s Freedom People Party a two-digit lead over the Democratic Party, its main center-left rival.

Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, cited the premier’s attendance at the 18th birthday party of Noemi Letizia of Naples when she announced she would divorce her husband. The premier insists Letizia is the daughter of an old friend and repeatedly denied that he had a sexual relationship with her.

In more recent fallout from the scandal, Berlusconi was placed under investigation after photos surfaced showing friends and entertainers flown on a government plane for parties at the leader’s villa in Sardinia.

Berlusconi maintains the guests provided entertainment during a state visit by a foreign leader and that they traveled with him at no extra cost to taxpayers.

A further twist came Friday, when Spanish newspaper El Pais published photographs of topless women and a naked man lounging at the villa. Berlusconi called the photos an invasion of privacy and moved to sue the paper.

The otherwise weak center-left opposition has questioned the values of the 72-year-old media tycoon and accused him of abusing his position.

The defiant Berlusconi, who dismissed the allegations as lies and leftist machinations, countered that the opposition chose to attack him personally because it had no real arguments.

Berlusconi, now in his third stint as premier, won a landslide victory last year despite corruption charges related to his business dealings hanging over his head.

And approval ratings have remained high despite a number of unguarded comments, including his description of U.S. President Barack Obama as “tanned.”

After the April earthquake in central Italy he also made a dubious attempt at humor about the homeless having a beach vacation at the state’s expense. Berlusconi said his comments were meant to infuse the survivors with optimism.

About 375 million voters across the 27-nation European Union are voting Thursday through Sunday, selecting candidates to 736 seats on the assembly in the second-largest election in the world after India’s.

As in most of the EU, the economic downturn and national politics, rather than Europe-wide issues, were at the forefront also in other countries voting on Saturday.

Cypriots, Maltese, Slovaks and Latvians were voting for the second time for the European Parliament since the countries joined the bloc in 2004.

In Cyprus, the communist-rooted Akel, the island’s largest party, was seeking an endorsement of its negotiations to reunite the Greek Cypriots with the breakaway Turkish Cypriots.

Malta’s governing Nationalist Party was facing a challenge from the opposition Labor Party over the handling of illegal immigration and rising cost of life.

In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico’s social democrats were expected to win and a good showing was predicted for the ultra nationalist Slovak National Party following tensions over the country’s ethnic Hungarian minority.

In Latvia, the Harmony Center, a left-wing force that represents the country’s large ethnic Russian minority, was doing well in the polls, though more than a third of voters were still undecided a week before the election.

AP writers Gary Peach in Riga, Latvia, George Cini in Valletta, Malta, Karel Janicek, in Prague, Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Raymond Carlson in Rome contributed to this report.