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Trial leaves Berlusconi down but not out

ROME, Feb 16 – Silvio Berlusconi is set to stand trial for paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl and then attempting a cover-up — but some experts say the veteran Italian leader could still cling on.

"The only thing saving him is the weakness of the alternative," Giacomo Marramao, a professor at Rome III university, told AFP.

"There is no credible political alternative on the horizon, no leader capable of uniting the opposition."

The trial\’s first hearing is set for April 6 — the latest lurid chapter in a controversial political career spanning nearly two decades in which the 74-year-old Berlusconi has survived numerous corruption and sex scandals.

"This is an important development that not only weakens him, but also weakens the willingness of his allies to follow him," said Franco Pavoncello, a professor of political science at Rome\’s John Cabot University.

"Italian politics is very simple. Everything stays in place as long as the Northern League party has the carrot of federalism in front of it," he said — referring to a party that has recently been calling the shots.

The Northern League is Berlusconi\’s last major ally in government and has threatened to trigger early elections if the prime minister does not force through reforms to devolve greater powers to Italy\’s regions.

"It\’s an embarrassing situation on the international scene. He really didn\’t need this, he\’s in serious difficulty," Panvoncello said.

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"If we\’re not in the final act of this government, we\’re at least in the penultimate one," he added.

"I don\’t see Silvio Berlusconi as a candidate for the elections in 2013" — the end of the government\’s current mandate.

According to a poll published on Monday, Berlusconi\’s popularity rating collapsed to 30.4 percent in February under the weight of sex scandals and an economy that is actually slowing down instead of recovering.

Gross domestic product (GDP) rose just 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter compared to the third, according to official data released on Tuesday — after growth of 0.3 percent in the third quarter and 0.5 percent in the fourth.

Tuesday\’s trial announcement has prompted opposition figures to come out and call directly for his resignation and early elections.

Berlusconi supporters stressed that he is innocent until proven guilty.

But many experts ruled out a quick resignation and warned that Berlusconi\’s end could be drawn-out and painful — particularly as the Italian leader still has the command of a majority of votes in parliament.

Marco Tarchi, a professor at Florence university, also warned that the prosecutors\’ request for a quick trial against Berlusconi — skipping lengthier judicial proceedings — could be over-hasty and "counter-productive."

In a tactic that the prime minister has managed to pull off with his electorate in the past, Tarchi said that "Silvio Berlusconi now has more chances of portraying himself as a victim of judicial persecution."

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