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Italian women come out in protest

Berlusconi's degradation of his public office is being met with growing popular rejection

As on each of the previous occasions in which his actions have been criticized, ridiculed or brought before the courts, on Monday the Italian prime minister repeated that he will not resign. Silvio Berlusconi has resorted to his favorite litany- "they can't touch me"- to blame all his ills on what he makes out to be customary collusion between the decaffeinated center-left opposition and a sector of the judiciary. For the first time, these ills now include mass demonstrations of women, who have come out in the streets to defend the dignity of their gender, and to protest about the scandal in which the head of the government is said to have had sexual relations with minors.

If on Sunday Berlusconi's problem was the mass protests, before that it was the warning messages from the powerful Italian employers' associations, the oblique pressures exerted by the Vatican, and the continuing decline in the prime minister's popularity, as shown in recent opinion surveys. None of these factors have so far made a dent in the stubborn determination to hold on to his office that has always characterized the veteran political survivor Berlusconi, after 18 years in power.

Il Cavaliere (The Knight, an honorific title he is known by, having received in 1977 the Order of Merit for Labor) has now learned that a court has formally indicted him, at the request of the prosecutor's office in Milan, for purchasing the services of a prostitute who was not of legal age, and for attempting to use his official position to conceal the fact. Both of these are serious crimes that could lead to years in prison. Quite apart from the technicalities that constitute the nucleus of the case, a formal accusation against the head of the government will probably draw Italy into a grave institutional confrontation, in view of the fact that just this month the lower chamber of the Italian parliament supported the prime minister, when it rejected a request from the Prosecutor's Office to carry out a search for evidence.

Because, at this stage of the game, it is Italy that looks to be the main loser: a country that is increasingly covered with international ridicule due to the irresponsible conduct of a politician and magnate who does not give two pins for the serious accusations that weigh upon him, and who attempts by any and all means to shield himself from the action of the courts.

It is more than unlikely that such a situation could exist in any other consolidated democracy in Europe. This stubborn entrenchment on the part of Berlusconi, who is now at the helm of an extremely weak government, exposed to relentless media attention on account of his arbitrary actions and numerous scandals (not only sexual ones), further deepens the quagmire into which Italian credibility has been sinking. The country deserves to be represented on the world scene by a more respectable figure.