ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday laughed off calls for him to resign over an investigation into allegations he paid for sex with young women, including a 17-year-old nightclub dancer.
“What, are you all mad?” Berlusconi said when asked if he would bow to calls from the opposition for his resignation.
“I’m absolutely calm, I’m enjoying myself.”
Pressure on the prime minister grew after magistrates sent a report to parliament alleging that a “significant” number of young women prostituted themselves with Berlusconi at his homes.
“If the prime minister has a crumb of dignity he should resign and go before investigators to face the infamous charges,” Dario Franceschini, parliamentary leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, told the lower house.
Franceschini, whose call was backed by other opposition parties, said Berlusconi should stop considering himself “above everything, even the law,” and let judges decide his case because digging in his heels was hurting Italy’s image abroad.
The conservative prime minister has seen off a series of sex scandals in recent years. But the latest comes at a difficult time as he no longer enjoys a secure parliamentary majority following a split with former ally Gianfranco Fini.
Berlusconi narrowly scraped through a confidence vote last month and last week Italy’s top court struck down part of a law that gave him immunity from prosecution.
Italian media had a field day reporting leaked transcripts of phone conversations between some of the women who attended parties at Berlusconi’s villa near Milan, described as “bunga bunga” parties in reference to lewd activity.
The Milan probe focuses on Karima El Mahroug, an 18-year-old Moroccan who attended Berlusconi’s parties when she was 17 and, according to prosecutors, was paid to have sex with him. Having sex with a prostitute aged under 18 is an offence in Italy.
The transcripts, cited by Italian media, quote El Mahroug saying she had asked Berlusconi for hush money and was told by the prime minister she would receive “as much money as you want” if she kept quiet. In another reported conversation, one of the women refers to Berlusconi’s parties as a “whore house.”
Berlusconi says the allegations are absurd. He says he never paid for sex and has been in a stable relationship since separating from his second wife, who left him in a blaze of publicity in 2009, accusing him of “frequenting minors.”
An opinion poll by IPSOS, the first to be made public since the latest scandal erupted, said 54 percent of Italians did not believe Berlusconi was being persecuted by magistrates.
Fifty percent of those interviewed, however, thought the scandal would not affect him and could even boost his support in the event of an early election.
The transcripts are part of a 385-page dossier detailing the investigation of the 74-year-old billionaire on suspicion of abuse of office and having sex with an underage prostitute.
Prosecutors sent it to the lower house of parliament to justify their request to search the office of a Berlusconi associate they believe handled the payments to the women.
Opposition politicians said the scale of the allegations and the details of the parties made Berlusconi’s position untenable.
“Not even the great poet Dante, when he portrayed the Inferno, got this far,” said Leoluca Orlando, a spokesman for the small Italy of Values opposition party.
“Prostitution, minors, abuse of power: it’s stuff that makes you sick,” said Oliviero Diliberto of the Left Federation. “Berlusconi cannot stay on one more minute: he is at risk of blackmail and as such cannot remain as prime minister,” he said.
The newspaper of Italy’s Catholic bishops, Avvenire, called the investigation a “devastating tornado” highlighting the need for politicians to maintain sober, respectful behaviour.
Italy’s highest selling weekly magazine, Famiglia Cristiana, said Berlusconi appeared to think he was living in another century “imagining himself similar to those Renaissance lords who could do whatever they wanted.”
Prosecutors have summoned Berlusconi, who already faces trials on corruption and tax fraud charges, for questioning this weekend on the latest scandal.
But the premier said late on Tuesday his lawyers believed the Milan prosecutors had no jurisdiction in the case and had told him it was “not logical” for him to attend.
Magistrates also suspect Berlusconi pressured police to release El Mahroug, who goes by the stage name “Ruby the Heart Robber,” last May when she was detained for theft.
The prime minister and allies say the investigation is a plot by biased magistrates to destroy his career, accusing prosecutors of prying into his private life and spying on his guests.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the investigation “will turn out to be a big set-up, like in the past,” and said he saw no reason for Berlusconi to step down.
Writing by Silvia Aloisi and Gavin Jones; Editing by Noah Barkin and Janet Lawrence