Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s beleaguered prime minister, blamed the media, the leftwing opposition and even the mafia for creating a scandal over his relationship with a teenage Moroccan belly-dancer which has threatened to bring down his already shaky centre-right coalition.
“We are under attack. We are united,” Mr Berlusconi, 74, told a meeting of his People of Liberty party as he repeated his intention to remain in office.
“Baseless smear campaigns will not stop me,” he said.
Mr Berlusconi challenged Gianfranco Fini, his former long-time ally who was effectively expelled from the party in July, to decide immediately whether he would continue to support the government or bring it down and force early elections.
Mr Fini, the speaker of parliament whose “rebels” have enough votes in the lower house to end Mr Berlusconi’s majority, is set to clarify his position this weekend at the launch of his own party, Future and Liberty of Italy.
Italo Bocchino, parliamentary leader of Mr Fini’s faction, called Mr Berlusconi’s speech “very disappointing”.
But political observers believe Mr Fini is not inclined to force Mr Berlusconi’s hand over the latest sex scandal unless – as Mr Fini has stated in public – it is proven that the prime minister had abused his powers in getting Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan runaway, out of Milan’s police station last May after she had been detained on suspicion of theft.
Nonetheless, even his own allies acknowledge in private that Mr Berlusconi has been weakened by recent events, following scandals last year linked to his hosting of prostitutes and a friendship with an 18-year-old would-be model, Noemi Letizia, which led his wife, Veronica Lario, to sue for divorce.
Ms El Mahroug – also known as Karima Keyek and by the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (Heartbreak) – was 17 at the time of her detention in May. She has said in newspaper interviews that she was among 10 young women at a party hosted by Mr Berlusconi at his Milan villa last February, and that he gave her €7,000 and a necklace.
She denies reports they had sex. Mr Berlusconi has acknowledged knowing Ms El Mahroug and said he wanted to help her.
In an account given to a newspaper owned by his family, Mr Berlusconi says he called a senior police official on May 27 when he learnt that Ms El Mahroug had been detained. But he denied reports that he requested her release by inventing a story that she was the niece of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Magistrates in Milan are investigating what happened.
On Wednesday they stated that police had followed correct procedures in releasing the teenager into the care of Nicole Minetti, a former television showgirl who became Mr Berlusconi’s dental hygienist and now serves as a regional parliamentarian in his party.
Setting out his government’s programme and defending its record, including a crackdown on organised crime, Mr Berlusconi said it could not be ruled out that the campaign against him was part of a mafia vendetta.
Opinion polls show Mr Berlusconi’s approval ratings sliding to new lows, although his party remains narrowly ahead of the centre-left opposition Democrats.