ROME Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Monday he had no intention of stepping down and dismissed a weekend demonstration by women across Italy over his involvement in a sex scandal.
Hundreds of thousands of women took part in rallies on Sunday to defend their dignity and protest over the underage prostitution scandal that has rocked the 74 year-old prime minister's center-right government.
Berlusconi has dismissed the investigation against him as "disgusting and disgraceful" but he has come under pressure from groups including the Vatican and Italy's main business lobby, Confindustria, and polls show his image has suffered.
The billionaire media entrepreneur, who was badly weakened by a split in the ruling PDL party last year, told his Canale 5 network the protests were the work of his political opponents.
"I saw the usual factional forces mobilized against me by a certain section of the left which uses any pretext to beat an adversary whom they can't manage to beat at the polls," he said.
A survey by the Demos polling institute published in the left-leaning La Repubblica daily showed a sharp fall in his popularity ratings, which dropped 4.6 points to 30.4 percent.
By contrast, Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, widely seen as a possible alternative leader of a center-right government if Berlusconi stepped down, saw a 7.8 percentage point rise to 50.4 percent.
Milan prosecutors have requested that Berlusconi face trial over accusations that he paid for sex with a girl below the age of 18 -- an offence in Italy -- and that he improperly pressured police to release her from custody over theft allegations.
Berlusconi said he had always treated women "with great care and respect," and added: "I have always tried to act in such a way that every woman feels special."
Media reports have created a lurid picture of life at his luxurious private villa at Arcore, near Milan, and there has been growing unease at the affair, even on the center-right.
Using material from investigators' wiretaps, newspapers have splashed accounts of "bunga bunga" sex parties attended by would-be starlets stripping and cavorting for the premier and his friends and leaving with bundles of cash and jewelry.
Sunday's protests included several leading figures from the opposition center-left but also some conservative middle-aged women, a group which has traditionally supported him.
Berlusconi, who has been working hard in recent weeks to shore up his precarious majority in parliament by recruiting deputies from smaller splinter parties, said the government would not resign over the affair.
"There is a lot of confusion but I have very clear ideas. The interest of the country is to have a stable government which carries on with its programme with determination," he said.
Berlusconi has never hidden his fondness for the company of young women but denies doing anything illegal and his lawyers have produced witness statements saying that the events at his villa were no more than convivial dinner parties.
"The Milan prosecutors' office and the media in contrast has trampled on the dignity of my guests, exposing them to public scorn without any reason or regard for them and trampling on the truth," Berlusconi said.
"It's really a disgrace, a big disgrace."
(Editing by Maria Golovnina)