Italian Prime Minister Monti Calls For TV Debate; Media Tycoon Berlusconi Demurs

Mario Monti - P 2012
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Italians head to the polls Feb. 24-25, and it appears likely there will be no head-to-head debate among major candidates despite Monti's insistence.

ROME – Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti on Sunday issued a challenge to rival candidates Pier Luigi Bersani and Silvio Berlusconi -- the billionaire media tycoon who has been prime minister three times before -- to say they should not run away from a televised debate ahead of the country’s Feb. 24-25 elections.

Both state broadcaster RAI and Sky-Italia, the satellite broadcast subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., offered to host a national prime minister debate. Italy has never held a televised debate between prime minister hopefuls.

But the RAI debate idea was rejected because the country’s “fair play” rules would have required it to include even second-tier candidates. Sky-Italia’s offer to host such an event still stands, but the Feb. 8 date floated for the debate has passed, and it increasingly looks like the elections will arrive without a televised face-off between the major candidates. Monti says that if that happens it would be cause for alarm.

“We have a duty to debate before the voters,” Monti said Sunday. “There are only a few days left before the vote. Do we really want to avoid giving Italian citizens a chance to make a decision based on a direct comparison between the candidates?”

Italian law prohibits any opinion polls from being released in the 15 days before the elections. But the last round of polls, released Feb. 8, showed Monti badly trailing Bersani and Berlusconi, with Bersani, a former minister, clinging to a slim overall lead.

As prime minister since Berlusconi stepped down amid personal and legal scandals in November 2011 and fears Italy might fall victim to the European debt crisis, Monti knows Italy’s problems well. And apparently running a distant third in the six-man field, he has little to lose by debating his rivals.

But Bersani is not a strong speaker, and so he would likely think twice before risking his thin lead in a debate. And Berlusconi, who is very comfortable on television, generally responds badly to the kinds of criticism Bersani and Monti would be likely to hurl his way. Additionally, Berlusconi could balk at participating in an event that could boost the ratings of Sky-Italia, a powerful rival to the Mediaset television and cinema giant he controls.

Even without a debate, television has played an enormous role in the campaign so far: in December, Berlusconi and Monti were in a virtual tie, 17 points behind Bersani. But Berlusconi dramatically cut into his rival’s lead since then through a barrage of television air time -- spending more time on television than all of his rivals combined in January.

That strategy may have run its course, however: the stunning Feb. 11 announcement that Pope Benedict XVI would step down at the end of the month has been dominating television news programs since the story broke, leaving much less time for Berlusconi to woo voters from the small screen.

Berlusconi’s media holdings include three national television networks, the Medusa film production and distribution house, and several print media.