Already Vulnerable, Berlusconi Weakened by Election Results

As candidates from Berlusconi’s ruling coalition lose local elections, the future for the scandal-wracked prime minister seems more in doubt than ever.

05.31.11 3:28 PM ET

There is a fine line between love and hate, and it appears that Italians are finally ready to cross over. Lauded as the most popular prime minister in Italy’s post-war history, Silvio Berlusconi has had a Midas touch and a Teflon shield for nearly two decades. Sex scandals and corruption charges have come and gone, but il Cavaliere, or “the knight” as he is known in Italy, has been riding steady—until now.

Berlusconi suffered a devastating blow on Monday when his ruling coalition candidates lost the vast majority of local elections held throughout the country. He is still prime minister – at least for now – but few see how he can ride out this storm, and many predict his demise by the end of summer. His razor-thin majority is now more vulnerable than ever. Berlusconi likely regrets deeming these elections a referendum on his popularity. Over two rounds of voting that took more than a month, Berlusconi’s hand-picked candidates lost important strongholds, most poignantly in the north of the country, which has always been the center of his support base. His most ardent and xenophobic political ally, Umberto Bossi, looks all but ready to bail.  “The government will move forward for now,” Bossi said after hearing the election results, "but I don't know if it will do so serenely.”

For months, Berlusconi has been using his vast wealth and extensive control over the media to campaign not as much for his candidates but against their opponents, even warning that Milan would become an “Islamic gypsy camp” if his center-right mayoral incumbent Letizia Moratti didn’t retain her post. Voters didn’t listen, and instead chose Giuliano Pisapia, a Communist party lawyer, who addressed thousands of revelers gathered in front of the Milan Duomo after the results were confirmed. “Milan has been liberated,” he said to roaring applause. “Now for the rest of Italy.”

Berlusconi’s candidate also lost in Naples, despite progress cleaning up the decades-old garbage problem once and for all. He failed on his beloved island of Sardinia, the location of his “ skinny dip scandal” where he was once accused of ferrying paid escorts with state aircraft to his tony Villa Certosa. His party lost in Casonia, where he famously attended the 18th birthday party of under-age lingerie model Noemi Letizia, prompting his wife Veronica Lario to file for divorce. And he lost in Arcore, where his lavish villa is the site of his “ bunga-bunga” parties and the focal point of his current criminal court case in which he faces prison time for allegedly procuring an underage prostitute for sex.  “This is not just an alarm bell,” wrote Maurizio Belpietro, editor of the right-wing newspaper Il Libero, of the results. “It’s a siren.”

The prime minister was on a state visit to Romania when Monday’s results were announced, perhaps acting on a premonition of his fate. "We lost. It's clear,” he told reporters there. “But now we have to remain calm and move forward. The majority is determined and united. Every time I suffer a setback, I triple my forces."

“This is not just an alarm bell,” wrote Maurizio Belpietro, editor of the newspaper Il Libero, of the results. “It’s a siren.”

On Tuesday, his lawyers represented him in absentia in a Milanese courtroom for the second hearing in his criminal trial for the alleged exploitation of an underage prostitute known as Ruby the Heart Stealer. His lawyers argued that because the alleged crimes were committed in Arcore and not Milan, the venue for the trial should be changed, but the legal wrangling is a ploy to waste time and prolong the trial until July 6, when Italy’s constitutional court will rule whether Milan has jurisdiction over crimes committed by a serving prime minister. Berlusconi maintains that he paid Ruby some $60,000 to buy hair removal equipment for a beauty salon she hoped to open—not for sex. Ruby, whose real name is Karima El Mahroug, admits taking cash from the prime minister and attending his lavish bunga-bunga parties, but says she has never had sex with him. She has turned her focus on a film career instead, petitioning Woody Allen this week to consider her for an upcoming film.

The next test for Berlusconi will come in a national referendum on June 12 and 13 when Italians will vote on a variety of issues he is sponsoring, from nuclear power development to whether or not to reinstate his immunity from criminal prosecution. Few doubt the results will be any better than this week’s. On June 2, Italy is set to celebrate its 150th year after Unification with national parades in cities across the country. "What happened in Milan, Naples ... and other centers resembles a revolution," wrote an editorialist for Italy’s respected Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper. While much of the rest of Europe is taking to the streets to protest dire political situations and lost hope, Italians are taking to the piazzas to celebrate what feels something like a dream come true.

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.