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How frightening is a failing democracy? If you want to find out, you don't need to look far. You only have to go to Italy.And no, you probably won't shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh well. After all, this is Italy." Gone are the days when a bit of corruption here and a conflict of interest there could be swept under the carpet with the phrase "non c'e niente da fare" ("there's nothing to be done"). This is what I encountered on my recent trip to Rome.

Berlusconi and the swimming champion Federica Pellegrini 

It had just rained for the first time after a long summer, a summer that seemed to have become hotter and steamier by the day — at least for Silvio Berlusconi. Stories about his affairs with girls — some of them of school age, others escorts invited to lavish parties on yachts and at his Sardinian villa that sound suspiciously like orgies — have rapidly escalated from tabloid gossip to a criminal investigation. It is already clear that the Italian Prime Minister has been taking incredible risks, which have already cost him his marriage and what was left of his credibility abroad.  The stream of allegations and his very public divorce have created a picture of a leader in trouble. 

This is in sharp contrast with his self-image. "I am Superman!" he declared. Every Italian wanted to be "young and handsome" like him, his only offence being that "I love, above all, beautiful women." He was also keen to prove, if necessary in court, that he was not impotent, as one newspaper had alleged. Standing next to his Spanish counterpart, he boasted: "I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150-year history." With megalomania came paranoia: dire threats against the "Catholic-Communist" forces plotting against him. His mouthpiece Il Giornale even lashed out at Gianfranco Fini, his chief political ally and likely successor, for (improbably) flirting with the Left. Denying that he had ever paid for sex — "the joy is in the conquest" — the downmarket Don Giovanni appeared to be losing the plot of this real-life Italian opera.

The Vatican, meanwhile, preferred to imply rather than express its disdain. Though the Pope lives less than a mile away from the Prime Minister, the two have not met for more than a year — an eternity even in the Eternal City. A Mass followed by a banquet with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, that Berlusconi had hoped would begin his rapprochement with the Church, was cancelled at short notice. Yet there was no open criticism of Berlusconi's actions, at least not from the highest officials in the Vatican. Considering this was an institution that hasn't always been so reserved, the silence seemed baffling.

"The Vatican thinks in centuries, not in days or stories as you do," a seasoned observer of the Vatican told me when we met near St Peter's Square. What, he wondered, would the Pope have to gain from upbraiding the Prime Minister for his moral turpitude? There have already been snide remarks in Berlusconi's newspapers about Benedict's "mitteleuropean" accent. After all, Berlusconi is not only a political leader, billionaire and media tycoon, but also a 73-year-old with a pacemaker and an operation for prostate cancer behind him. He may disappear sooner rather than later, and his political programme with him, for he has not built a party with the tradition and roots of those of both the far Left and the far Right. "In other words", said my contact, "Berlusconi is a phenomenon much like a house of cards." 

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