Berlusconi clings on despite outrage over sex charges

His supporters have rallied round the embattled 74-year-old, who has denied all the charges and accused prosecutors of plotting against him.

Berlusconi's ratings have plunged but he can cling on as long as he has a majority in parliament -- a prospect that Stefano Folli, a columnist for Il Sole 24 Ore daily, said will set up a stand-off with the judiciary.

"We are headed for a devastating institutional conflict," Folli said. "A prime minister standing trial for these very serious crimes... is a unique case in the recent history of Western democracies," he added.

The prime minister stands accused of paying for sex with a 17-year-old prostitute and then using his status to spring her out of police custody.

The underage sex charge carries a maximum sentence of three years, while the abuse of power accusation is punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

While Italy's left-wing opposition is calling for Berlusconi's resignation, his allies say the Milan court due to begin hearings on the case on April 6 does not have jurisdiction and underline the premier's popular mandate.

"Democracy is at risk as there is a risk of an operation by the media and the judiciary to overturn the result of an election," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, leader of the ruling People of Freedom party in parliament, referring to Berlusconi's 2008 poll win.

Meanwhile Berlusconi has not given any official reaction to yesterday's sex trial announcement and is continuing with business as usual today. The prime minister is to hold a meeting on the economy today and will then meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is on a visit to Rome.

Massimo Franco, a columnist for Corriere della Sera daily, said: "It's possible that early elections become inevitable but his numeric majority and the loyalty of the Northern League party... guarantee his survival."

The anti-immigration Northern League, which wants federal reforms to give Italy's northern regions greater powers, is Berlusconi's last major ally in government and its position in the weeks ahead is seen as critical.

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