You might call it a cameo appearance. A week before Silvio Berlusconi declared he was returning to the spectacle that is Italian politics, the woman we know as "Ruby the Heartstealer" made a brief stop at the former prime minister's lavish villa at Arcore outside Milan.
Berlusconi is accused of paying for underage s-x with Ruby, whose real name is Karim El-Mahroug during the notorious "bunga bunga
" parties at his villa. Both are facing charges -- which they deny -- in a Milan court.
But it seems there were no pole dancers or strip shows at this cleverly timed pit stop. From all reports she remained fully clothed when she came to call on November 28.
Ruby had traveled by train from Genoa and after a brief chat with the 76-year-old billionaire and one of his MPs she was driven away by one of the former prime minister's drivers and quietly left the country. Just like that.
She failed to show up at his bunga bunga
trial in Milan last Monday and her lawyer happily told the court she had no idea where she was. We then learned she was in Mexico and thinking of returning to Italy in January.
As Berlusconi launches into his daring bid to be prime minister for the fourth time, he is making his own kind of cameo himself and you would be right in asking yourself: how does he get away with it? He is a grandfather whose slicked-down hair transplants and umpteen facelifts have left him looking like a marionette, he was hounded out of office a year ago as the economy tanked and in October he picked up a tax fraud conviction and a potential ban from public office which he is now appealing.
His party's popularity is at rock bottom -- around 14% -- but he is also one of the richest men in the country and controls the country's largest commercial TV network which he used to great effect on Sunday, even though his Mediaset empire has been pummeled by Italy's economic downturn.
In an interview on Domenica Live
on his Canale 5 network, Berlusconi said he had been "tricked" into the bunga bunga
soirees at a time when he was vulnerable after the separation from his second wife, Veronica Lario. He also lashed out at the judiciary while offering to cut controversial housing taxes and spoke of his new engagement to 27-year-old girlfriend Francesca Pascale, who is 50 years his junior.
But Berlusconi's prospects of returning to power suffered a major blow this week when his former allies in the Northern League warned if he leads his party into the election, they would not join him in a coalition. "I'll try to convince him to take a step back [and not run]," Roberto Maroni, the leader of the Northern League, told the daily La Repubblica
. "If I lose with him, we're finished."
The big question is whether the current technocrat prime minister Mario Monti will yield to pressure from inside and outside Italy and run as a centrist candidate against Berlusconi. A weekend poll published in Corriere Della Sera
showed 30% of Italians wanted to see him as a candidate while an even higher 44% of those aligned with the centre-left Democratic Party said they supported it.
Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the powerful head of Ferrari, is pushing Monti to lead a coalition of moderates, but a Montezemolo-led coalition would only attract around 10% of the vote while the centre-left Democratic Party is well ahead in the polls.
There is speculation Monti may be appointed finance minister in a centre-left government or seek to replace President Giorgio Napolitano when his term ends next year. Whatever happens Monti is a senator for life and has ushered in crucial austerity measures that Italy needed to avert a Greek-style debt crisis.
Professor James Walston from the American University in Rome is not convinced he will pursue an explicit role in party politics. "He seems to be a man of principle rather than one seduced by the sirens of power; if that is true, he is pursuing his economic agenda and will continue to do so whoever wins the elections," Walston said.
"He'll do this whoever is prime minister and he will be that much stronger if he does not support anyone explicitly but he will try and condition the parties and leaders who are seeking election."