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the New York Times

Italians Say 'No Berlusconi'

Tens of thousands march through Central Rome to protest Silvio Berlusconi's leadership

Elisabetta Povoledo

A puppet of Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi sports a sign that says “I sell bad pots. Unable to govern,” at a No Berlusconi Day rally in Rome Saturday. (Dec. 5, 2009)

ROME - Tens of thousands of protesters gathered Saturday in Rome to express their exasperation with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is on trial on corruption charges and who was politically bruised this year by scandals involving younger women.

Many of those who gathered after a call on Facebook to demonstrate expressed indignation about what they perceived as Mr. Berlusconi's autocratic style in governing Italy. Others complained that after years in power, Mr. Berlusconi had done little to better the country.

"This started with civil society, people who are touched by problems like unemployment and the economy and the environment and want things to change," said Elisa Tottone, a teacher who lives in Rome. "Berlusconi is not dealing with Italy's real problems. He only cares about his own."

The demonstration appeared to be larger than one in October called to defend press freedom and widely seen as a thinly veiled attack on the prime minister, who owns the country's largest private broadcaster and several major magazines. Although protest organizers claimed to have attracted a million marchers on Saturday, the police put the figure much lower, at 90,000.

While the protests have tapped into some discontent, Mr. Berlusconi remains firmly in control despite tensions in his center-right coalition. He faced some popular disapproval this summer after a series of embarrassing sex scandals involving young women who said they were paid to attend his lavish parties. The prime minister has denied any impropriety. And he recently lost his immunity from prosecution, allowing the start of a trial in which he is accused of paying a bribe to a lawyer for false testimony in other corruption cases.

But Mr. Berlusconi has also won points among many Italians for solving problems with uncollected trash in Naples and for his handling of the earthquake in L'Aquila in April.

Some protesters on Saturday said they were also frustrated with the fractured opposition. "I'm disoriented because there is no opposition," said Marina Garofoli, a retired art historian, adding that the center-left was missing out on an "important moment" to capitalize on the country's discontent.

One analyst, Roberto D'Alimonte, a University of Florence political science professor, said he did not believe protests were the way to topple the prime minister. "The way to do it is to create a credible alternative to him," he said. "You can't just oppose, you have to build a coalition."

On Friday, a convicted killer and Mafia turncoat told a Turin court that he had heard that the Sicilian Cosa Nostra had links with Mr. Berlusconi in the early 1990s. On Saturday, Mr. Berlusconi indirectly addressed the allegations, but he hailed the arrest in Palermo of Giovanni Nicchi, believed to be the new No. 2 member of the Mafia in western Sicily, saying such operations were "the best response to the calumnies lobbed at the government."

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