ROME The approval rating of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been dogged by a messy divorce and accusations of cavorting with teenage girls and escorts, has fallen below 50 percent for the first time.
A poll on Tuesday had only 49 percent expressing confidence in him as prime minister, four points down from the last time the same group, IPR Marketing, took it in May. Fifty percent said they had "little or no" confidence.
The government's approval rating was unchanged: 44 per cent said they had "a lot or sufficient" confidence and 52 per cent said they had "little or none".
The poll was taken for La Repubblica newspaper, Italy's second-largest selling mainstream paper, which has been leading demands that Berlusconi clear up aspects of his personal life.
It was published a day after the websites of L'Espresso weekly and La Repubblica posted recordings of conversations purported to be between Berlusconi and Patrizia D'Addario, a high-end escort who says she and other women were paid to attend parties at Berlusconi's residence in Rome.
Berlusconi, 72, has not denied that the 42-year-old woman went to his home but has said he did not know she was an escort.
D'Addario says she made the recordings on her cell phone during the night she spent with the prime minister or while involved in telephone conversations, one with Berlusconi.
Mainstream newspapers re-published the conversations on Tuesday in full or in part, including one in which a man purported to be Berlusconi says they should both take showers, and whoever finished first should wait in "the big bed".
Another conversation is purported to be between D'Addario and Berlusconi the next day, where he expresses surprise that D'Addario says she has lost her voice "because we didn't scream".
Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini on Monday dismissed the recordings as "totally unlikely and a product of the imagination", saying it was illegal to post or publish them.
One conversation is purportedly between D'Addario and Giampaolo Tarantini, a businessman who is being investigated on suspicion of providing paid escorts to curry political favour for an enterprise in the southern city of Bari, from where D'Addario also hails.
In one conversation, D'Addario tells Tarantini she had expected to receive money but did not, adding that Berlusconi promised to help her solve a problem related to a real estate deal in the south.
The centre-left opposition says Berlusconi must come clean on his private life because it contrasts with his public espousal of family and religious values, and because there is a risk that he or the government could be blackmailed.
The opposition is seeking a debate on Berlusconi's private life in the Senate, where the centre-right has a majority.
D'Addario has given the recordings to magistrates investigating Tarantini. Ghedini said there should be an investigation into how the publications obtained them, and has threatened legal action against those who re-publish them.
But L'Espresso was uncowed and on Tuesday posted four more segments of conversations, three in which D'Addario and Berlusconi discuss their encounters, politics and art.
The current uproar comes nearly two months after Italy was transfixed by Berlusconi's friendship with an 18-year-old aspiring model. He said he had no sexual relations with her.
Berlusconi's wife Veronica filed for divorce in May, expressing disgust about his alleged cavorting with teenagers.
Ghedini said last month that even if D'Addario's allegations were true, Berlusconi could not control who his male guests brought to the prime minister's residence, and he would have been at the very most an "unwitting subject".
L'Espresso website had a record 2.1 million hits on Monday after it posted the tapes.