The pillars of a democratic society -- the rule of law and the role of ethics… (Tony Gentile / Reuters )
Reporting from Rome — Scandals that would almost certainly topple the leader of any other Western democracy — alleged encounters with underage prostitutes, corruption charges, unabashed cronyism — have yet to knock Silvio Berlusconi off his perch as Italy's prime minister, a post he has held for most of the last decade.
So there are few Italians willing to bet their last euro that the latest imbroglio, which has Berlusconi set to stand trial in April on charges that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl, will finally push him out the door.
But sensing that the odds are mounting against him, many here are starting to ask not whether Berlusconi can survive the caldron of Italian politics, but in what state he would leave Italian democracy.
Commentators and critics across the ideological spectrum say that when he finally goes, Berlusconi will leave behind a nation whose democratic institutions, governance and political discourse have been badly debased under his long and rocky tenure.
The pervasive sleaze emanating from the very top, the increasing importance of personality and Berlusconi's efforts to concentrate power while sidelining other institutions of state have all weakened the body politic, many analysts say.
"Italian democracy is deteriorating fast," said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of John Cabot University in Rome.
The pillars of a democratic society — the rule of law and the role of ethics in public life — have been seriously eroded by Italy's political establishment and by Berlusconi in particular, creating a "democracy deficit," critics say.
As premier, Berlusconi, 74, has cultivated the idea that a popular mandate gives him license to ignore regular norms of conduct and propriety, said James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of Rome.
"His first statement after being elected was that he was anointed by the people. He was like Louis XIV, an absolute monarch with the blessing of the people," Walston said. "If you've been elected by the people and the people are sovereign, they can give you all power and you can do what you want."
The role of unquestioned boss was familiar to Berlusconi from his days as a billionaire media baron who still owns an empire that controls most of Italy's commercial television.
But in government, analysts say, his kingly style has fostered an extreme personalization and polarization of politics, where virtually every matter of state and public policy turns into a referendum of sorts on Berlusconi himself, who inspires either devotion or revulsion.
Berlusconi's belief in the paramount power of the executive has led him to mount repeated attacks on other state institutions, especially the prosecutors and judges who investigate his business dealings and personal behavior.
Berlusconi dismisses them as "communists," describes himself as the most persecuted man "in the entire history of the world" and even encourages public rallies against Italy's independent judiciary.
Such constant attacks undermine the careful checks and balances and separation of powers set up by Italy's postwar constitution after the country's experience under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, critics say. Can anyone imagine the American president calling for protests against the U.S. Supreme Court?
At the same time, Berlusconi has used Parliament to enact laws that directly favor him and his businesses, introducing bills to shield his media empire from competition and to give him immunity from prosecution.
Voters who supported Berlusconi because they thought, as a self-made man, he wouldn't be beholden to special interests soon discovered that he himself was the special interest, critics say.
Yet he is able to dampen criticism and portray himself in a flattering light in large part because of his companies' stranglehold on commercial TV, the main source of news for the majority of Italians.
"Only a blind person could not see the lethal and unnatural firepower, through his ownership of the Mediaset group,… that is concentrated in the hands of a political leader who's also an economic tycoon," wrote analyst Massimo Giannini for the Rome-based think tank Italianieuropei last month.
Political observers credit Berlusconi with reviving the center-right in Italian politics and turning it into an electoral force. He has managed to stitch together a number of right-leaning coalitions that have put him in the prime minister's office off and on since 1994.
The opposition, by contrast, remains in disarray, which is partly why low approval ratings and nonstop scandals haven't been enough to drive Berlusconi out. He also maintains support from a significant portion of male voters, who regard his peccadilloes with indifference or even envy. Italian women seem less forgiving: Tens of thousands took to the streets Sunday to protest what they see as Berlusconi's ongoing assault on female dignity.