LONDON // Like him or loathe him, Silvio Berlusconi has a knack of spicing up any occasion, even one as apparently dull as a European parliament election campaign. First there was the plan by his People of Freedom (PdL) party to field his so-called "showgirl candidates" in the June elections: an assortment of TV stars, actresses and an ex-beauty queen selected as potential Euro MPs. In the end, only one - Barbara Matera, an actress, TV announcer and former Miss Italy contestant - was actually selected to stand for the PdL. But, by that time, the damage was done.
Veronica Lario, the prime minister's wife, had already publicly branded the plan to field the bevy of young beauties as "shameless rubbish put on for the entertainment of the emperor". Mr Berlusconi said his wife had been misled by reports in the left-wing media, but the fallout left relations in the Berlusconi household increasingly strained after 19 years of marriage, even if the tiff made Italian voters take a bit more interest in the Euro elections.
Things got dramatically worse last month when the wife of the 72-year-old prime minister accused him of having an inappropriate relationship with Noemi Letizia, an 18-year-old lingerie model. Ms Lario, Mr Berlusconi's second wife, announced that she wanted a divorce and, all of a sudden, Italian politics seemed interesting again, if not for strictly political reasons. For his part, Mr Berlusconi denied any improper relationship with Ms Letizia, but his apparent preoccupation with the fairer (and much younger) sex caused his approval rating to dip three points in a month although, at 53 per cent, still at a level many fellow European leaders could only dream about.
But Mr Berlusconi is nothing if not a populist. Just when it seemed the whole election might centre on a clutch of attractive young women surrounding him, he turned the whole thing on its head by announcing a crackdown on illegal immigrants. "We're seeing a repeat of what happened in last year's elections," said James Walston, an associate professor of international relations at the American University of Rome. "Berlusconi seems to be managing the agenda. He's moving it away from personal matters. He's saying: 'Look at me and look at the wonderful things I'm doing to protect your streets'."
The Italian navy began turning back boats, which last year brought at least 36,000 would-be illegal immigrants from Africa to Italy via Libya. The total number of illegal immigrants currently living in Italy is estimated at one million. Mr Berlusconi proposed hefty new fines for illegal immigrants, which would be imposed before their deportation, and tripled the length they can be held in detention centres to 180 days.
The moves have appalled human rights groups, the Roman Catholic Church and the United Nations refugee agency. They have even drawn a warning from Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, that social tensions could be inflamed by "public rhetoric that, even in Italy, does not hesitate to incorporate intolerant and xenophobic tones". But Mr Berlusconi and his right-wing coalition partners appear unabashed, pushing ahead with further law-and-order measures that include the sanctioning of "neighbourhood watch" patrols on the streets of Italian towns.
The plans have gone down well with Italian voters and have wrong-footed the centre-left opposition. Mr Berlusconi has been making the most of his law-and-order drive, which is winning friends and influencing voters. Not that anyone has ever doubted his adroitness at manipulating the Italian media. He does, after all, own a fair chunk of it. Not quite everything has been going his party's way, however. Italy has been feeling the economic pinch as bad, if not worse, than much of the rest of Europe. The latest figures show that, in March, monthly production in Italy fell for the 11th month. It was down 4.6 per cent on the previous month, almost three times the drop predicted by analysts.
Yet it still might be the estranged wife, rather than economic gloom, that erodes the Berlusconi support when Italy goes to the polls on Sunday. However, latest polls suggest that, despite his problems with the fairer sex, Mr Berlusconi and his allies will at least hold their own in the European vote and, possibly, increase their representation. Maria Laura Rodota, a commentator with the Milan-based Corriere della Sera, one of Italy's oldest newspapers, said Ms Lario had "struck the most formidable and effective challenge to Berlusconi's mystique to date". She added: "Berlusconi's media are now engaged in what appears to be a massive spin operation to divert attention, in order to bury the first lady's serious criticisms and accusations.
"But I record a growing, ebullient cross-party female indignation online. It might be a minority, but it is significant in a country that is ranked almost last in Europe for the freedom of the press. I think in the long term the 'Noemi-gate' will have political consequences." It is only a shame, observed Ms Rodota, that the only effective criticism in the current election campaign had come from an aggrieved wife, rather than any of Mr Berlusconi's political opponents.