Berlusconi grabs spotlight in Italy's EU vote

ROME – 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 used a government plane to ferry friends to his vacation villa.

Despite a deep recession and rising unemployment, the scandals have transfixed Italians and hijacked most of the campaign for the two-day vote to select Italy's 72 European Parliament members. Results were expected Sunday.

The campaign, "on the whole, was hardly praiseworthy," Milan daily Corriere della Sera headlined Saturday its front-page commentary, which lamented that the run-up to the vote was heavy on mud and light on any serious discussion on European issues like crime, immigration or unemployment.

"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 popularity, but there has been little to suggest a possible electoral defeat. 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 a woman's 18th birthday party when she announced her intention to divorce. The premier denied having a sexual relationship with woman, saying she is a daughter of an old friend.

More recently, Berlusconi was placed under investigation after photos surfaced showing friends flown on a government plane for parties at the leader's villa in Sardinia. Berlusconi maintains the guests traveled with him at no extra cost to taxpayers and provided entertainment during a state visit by a foreign leader.

On Friday, 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 center-left opposition has questioned the 72-year-old media tycoon's values and accused him of abusing his position.

Berlusconi dismissed the allegations as lies and leftist machinations, and said the opposition was attacking him personally because it had no real arguments.

Some Italians sounded weary or disappointed about the heavy scandal coverage.

"I didn't care much for the electoral campaign," said Salvatore Pieropan, a 62-year-old sculptor. "I would have liked it if the politicians spoke more about politics and not gossip."

Other Italians said they thought the scandal wouldn't hurt Berlusconi at the polls.

"He has given the Italians all they wanted. So the scandal won't have any impact," said Katia Felli, 24, who works at a shoe store.

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.

Associated Press 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.

in Bulgaria. AP