|Silvio Berlusconi has been asked by the opposition to resign over leaked telephone transcripts [Reuters]
Opponents of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have called for him to quit over phone transcripts in which he boasts of his popularity with women, as his camp hit out at the intrusion into his private life.
The transcripts form key evidence in an investigation led by prosecutors in Bari, southern Italy, against eight people suspected of providing Berlusconi with dozens of young women in 2008 and 2009 in order to win lucrative contracts, including with aerospace firm Finmeccanica.
Al Jazeera's Claudio Lavanga reporting from Rome says this incident is bound to be embarrassing to the leader - "even for someone prone to scandals as he is."
"The prime minister had specifically asked for women not taller than himself; he is 1.65m. But one of the most worrying reactions came from Berlusconi's staunchest ally, the Italian minister for reforms, Umberto Bossi who feared the prime minister would not see his term through, hinting that Italy may see an early election," our correspondent reported.
The Italian press on Saturday published the detailed exchanges.
In one dated January 1, 2009, Berlusconi, who will shortly celebrate his 75th birthday, tells how women were scrambling to spend the night with him.
"There were 11 of them, but I only did eight because I couldn't do any more," he is quoted as saying.
The remarks were made to Gianpaolo Tarantini, a businessman who is the main person accused in the Bari inquiry.
Tarantini has been in custody since September 1 accused of extorting $1.2 million from Berlusconi to lie to prosecutors about the parties they were throwing.
These other proceedings are being led by a Naples court which last week requested to hear from Berlusconi as the "victim" in the alleged blackmail case.
In another conversation, the Italian prime minister talks with Marysthell Polanco, a young dancer from the Dominican Republic whose name has been featured in the "Rubygate" case, where Berlusconi is being tried for allegedly paying for sex with a minor.
He apologises for not being able to spend much time with the performer, adding: "You know, Marysthell, in my spare time I'm the prime minister."
Calls for resignation
Italy's main opposition group the left-wing Democratic Party (PD) demanded his resignation.
"Italy, with the serious problems it is facing, cannot have an executive who governs in his spare time," the party said.
A poll this month showed that Berlusconi's popularity has hit an all-time low of 24 per cent.
"Berlusconi is in the hands of pimps and prostitutes who exploit him to get tender invites or senior positions in public businesses," said Felice Belisario of the Italy of Values party, a partner of the PD.
The prime minister's former ally on the right Gianfranco Fini also called for a new leader, stressing his concern for Italy's international image "which is getting damaged day after day."
Berlusconi, who is serving a third term as prime minister, declared on Friday that he had done nothing to be ashamed of, writing in a letter to the head of the daily Il Foglio paper Giuliano Ferrara that "there has been a villainous attempt to turn my private life into a crime."
One of Berlusconi's ministers Saverio Romano backed the premier's remarks, hitting out at "a lynching operation across the media" with its publication of "private conversations without a hint of criminality."
Several members of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party meanwhile stressed the solidarity of the governing alliance with the Northern League.
"Several days ago the government received the backing (of the majority) for its austerity plan, that's a fact," said minister Raffaele Fitto.
On Monday Berlusconi will attend a trial hearing in Milan where he is accused of paying former British lawyer David Mills $600,000 for false testimony about his business dealings.