ROME Italy's Silvio Berlusconi needs a resounding win in this weekend's European election to silence scandals about his love life and business dealings that threaten his credibility.
Despite grave problems in Italy's economy, which is heading for a 5 percent contraction this year, policy debate is taking second place to discussion of the prime minister's private life ahead of the vote Italy holds on June 6-7.
"The election campaign is like some reality show," said the left-wing head of the southern Puglia region, Nichi Vendola.
Berlusconi personally leads the list of candidates for his People of Freedom party (PDL), which the opposition complains cheats voters because he will have to resign his seat in the European Parliament immediately in order to remain premier.
Berlusconi's supporters say his participation is meant as an antidote to abstention, with pan-European polls suggesting turnout could be embarrassingly low at 49 percent or even less.
But in the run-up to the combined European and local Italian elections this weekend, the 72-year-old media magnate and the rest of Italy has talked of little else but his relationship with a teenage Naples girl.
That scandal has prompted his wife to seek divorce and met with stern disapproval from the Catholic church.
The center left, trounced by Berlusconi in an election last year, has latched onto the scandal to try to narrow the strong lead of his People of Freedom party in opinion polls.
"The row about the premier's private life masks the mystery about what could happen after the June 6-7 elections," columnist Massimo Franco wrote in Corriere della Sera. "The (opposition) Democratic Party (PD) dreams of the end of Berlusconi."
But Berlusconi said this weekend that his compatriots "can tell reality from slander and politics from garbage. With their votes they'll clean all this garbage from the political debate."
"PLEBISCITE" ON THE PM
Most polls of voter intentions see no real threat to the prime minister, giving his party about 40 percent and his allies in the anti-immigrant Northern League as much as 10 percent.
That would represent an advance on last year's national vote result for Berlusconi -- while the PD is mostly seen getting about 25 percent, well behind its 33 percent in the 2008 vote.
But the prime minister has set the bar even higher, citing private polls that he says give him between 43 and 45 percent.
"We're aiming to be the biggest group inside the European Popular Party," he said, referring to the conservative majority in the European assembly.
James Walston, politics professor at the American University of Rome, said Berlusconi took such a prominent role in the vote because he "wanted to make the European elections a plebiscite on his government" one year into his third term.
"He wants to be able to say to Italy and the whole of Europe that he is the most popular man in Europe," said Walston.
Despite the electoral bombast, however, Berlusconi appears increasingly worried about the unabating media scrutiny of his relationship with Noemi Letizia, who was 17 when they met.
While trying to cultivate a more statesmanlike image ahead of the G8 summit he hosts in July, Berlusconi has been reduced to denying there was any "steamy affair" and saying that if he had lied, he would have had to resign "minutes later."
Berlusconi also complains of persecution by "left-wing extremist" magistrates in the case of British lawyer David Mills, convicted in Italy for taking a 600,000 bribe, though Berlusconi has immunity as premier thanks to a law he passed.
Welfare Minister Maurizio Sacconi accused the opposition of using dirty tricks to unseat Berlusconi and said "Italians are ready if necessary to vote again to support the prime minister" -- raising the prospect of further political instability.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)