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ROME – Silvio Berlusconi’s chances to become Italy’s prime minister for a fourth time could be hampered by this week’s unexpected announcement that Pope Benedict XVI would abdicate at the end of the month.
Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon as well known for his “bunga bunga” sex parties and legal problems as for his political career, had been making significant inroads in the race to become prime minister, due mostly to a media barrage — both paid advertising and television appearances.
The strategy helped the telegenic Berlusconi reduce his electoral deficit against frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani from 17 percentage points in late December to just five percentage points when the final official polls were released Feb. 8. And there is speculation the gap may have closed further since then: some Italian media reported a leaked internal Berlusconi poll showing the 76-year-old within two points of Bersani early in the week.
But Berlusconi’s momentum could grind to a halt now, with coverage of the pontiff’s decision to step down for health- and age-related reasons dominating news coverage. With the announcement, Benedict became the first pope to voluntarily decide to resign since Celestine V in 1294. Since Benedict’s announcement on Monday, Berlusconi’s airtime has diminished dramatically, according to monitoring companies.
Additionally, the increased attention on the Vatican is serving as a stark contrast to Berlusconi’s high-profile sexual, ethical and legal issues and previous Vatican snubs, making him a less attractive candidate in contrast.
It is difficult to estimate the impact the changes are having on Berlusconi’s momentum, since Italian law prohibits the release of any official polling data for the 15-day period before any election, meaning the last polls were released Feb. 8. Voting is scheduled for Feb. 24-25.
“The election campaign ended Monday at 11:46 a.m.,” wrote Luigi Crespi, a political analyst writing in La Repubblica. Beppe Severgnini, writing in Corriere della Sera, agreed: “One of the contenders, no need to say which one, needs a [television] stage, and he will not have one.”
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