Italy's RAI Rejected as Host of First National Political Debate (Report)

Berlusconi
Berlusconi
 Jacob Raule/Getty Images

ROME – Italy’s first-ever face-to-face debate among the candidates seeking to become prime minister will not take place on state broadcaster RAI, after Italian media reported that billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi balked at the event -- including the full slate of six candidates.

A debate could still take place, however: Sky-Italia, the local subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., was the first to propose a debate among the candidates, after a successful broadcast last year of the primary debate between the candidates from the Partito Democratico. The winner of that primary, former minister Pier Luigi Bersani, is now leading in the polls, with Berlusconi second.

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Rules requiring RAI to give equal coverage to all candidates obligated the network to include not only Bersani, three-time prime minister Berlusconi and incumbent Mario Monti -- the leaders of the three main coalitions -- but also three candidates seen as forming a second tier in the Italian press: comedian and activist Beppe Grillo, anti-Mafia judge Antonio Ingroia and journalist Oscar Giannino. Sky-Italia is not subject to the equal coverage rules.

But it is from from clear whether Berlusconi would agree to the debate on Sky-Italia. The 76-year-old often reacts badly to the kind of criticisms his rivals are likely to hurl his way, and he could refuse to participate in an event that would no doubt boost the ratings of the main rival to Mediaset, the broadcast and cinema giant he controls.

But Berlusconi’s hand could be forced if the other candidates agree to a Sky-Italia debate: According to the financial daily Il Sole/24 Ore, Bersani agreed to a debate on Sky if Grillo, Ingroia and Giannino were excluded. And indications are that Monti, who is trailing in the polls, would jump at a chance to debate his rivals.

Berlusconi had dramatically closed the gaps with Bersani in recent weeks, but that was before weekend comments defending Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, which some experts say could slow the media mogul’s momentum.

The vote will take place Feb. 24-25.

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