Berlusconi clings on despite outrage over sex charges

Rome, Feb 16 (AFP) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi clungto power today as Italy headed for turbulent times after theannouncement that he will stand trial for sex with an underageprostitute and for abuse of power.

His supporters have rallied round the embattled74-year-old, who has denied all the charges and accusedprosecutors of plotting against him.

Berlusconi''s ratings have plunged but he can cling on aslong as he has a majority in parliament -- a prospect thatStefano Folli, a columnist for Il Sole 24 Ore daily, said willset up a stand-off with the judiciary.

"We are headed for a devastating institutional conflict,"Folli said.

"A prime minister standing trial for these very seriouscrimes... is a unique case in the recent history of Westerndemocracies," he added.

The prime minister stands accused of paying for sex witha 17-year-old prostitute and then using his status to springher out of police custody.

The underage sex charge carries a maximum sentence ofthree years, while the abuse of power accusation is punishableby up to 12 years in prison.

While Italy''s left-wing opposition is calling forBerlusconi''s resignation, his allies say the Milan court dueto begin hearings on the case on April 6 does not havejurisdiction and underline the premier''s popular mandate.

"Democracy is at risk as there is a risk of an operationby the media and the judiciary to overturn the result of anelection," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, leader of the rulingPeople of Freedom party in parliament, referring toBerlusconi''s 2008 poll win.

Meanwhile Berlusconi has not given any official reactionto yesterday''s sex trial announcement and is continuing withbusiness as usual today.

The prime minister is to hold a meeting on the economytoday and will then meet with Russian President DmitryMedvedev, who is on a visit to Rome.

Massimo Franco, a columnist for Corriere della Seradaily, said: "It''s possible that early elections becomeinevitable but his numeric majority and the loyalty of theNorthern League party... guarantee his survival."

The anti-immigration Northern League, which wants federalreforms to give Italy''s northern regions greater powers, isBerlusconi''s last major ally in government and its position inthe weeks ahead is seen as critical. (AFP)

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