ROME — A Milan judge on Tuesday ordered Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconito stand trial in April
oncharges of paying an under-age girl for sex and abuse of office, dealing the most serious blow to his leadership in the 17 years that he has dominated Italian politics.
In a brief statement, the judgesaid the trial would start on April 6. Mr. Berlusconi faces charges that he paid for sex with Karima el-Mahroug, then an under-age nightclub dancer nicknamed Ruby Heart-Stealer, and that he abused hisoffice to help release her from police custody when she was detained for theft. The scandal has dominated political debate in Italy for months.
Mr. Berlusconi denies wrongdoing and has said he has nointention of stepping down. But in an increasingly tense climate after large anti-Berlusconi demonstrations on Sunday, analysts said the judge’s ruling made it nearly impossible for the primeminister to govern and all but guaranteed early national elections.
“The situation is more political than judicial now,” said Stefano Folli, a political columnist for the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore. Hepredicted that in the short term Mr. Berlusconi would hold on, but that “in the middle term it’s an unsustainable situation.”
“And ‘middle term’ means a few months,” he added.
The leader of thecenter-left opposition, Pier Luigi Bersani, called for Mr. Berlusconi to resign immediately.
The prime minister has called the accusations “groundless,” and so far his center-right coalition, whichgoverns with a narrow majority, has stood by him. But on Tuesday there was no immediate response from the Northern League, the most powerful party in his coalition. Analysts speculated that there waswrangling over whether to pull the plug on the government.
After the ruling, Mr. Berlusconi flew back to Rome from Sicily, where he did not appear at a scheduled news conference and where Italy is...