Italy Candidates Agree to TV Debate, But Under Very Different Conditions

Silvio Berlusconi - Political Plans and Legal Charges
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Italian media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has often been seen as the teflon media mogul - always facing legal and other charges, but never really facing consequences. In Oct. 2012 though, a court sentenced the head of media group Mediaset, whose stock has been dropping amid weak ad trends, to four years in prison in a tax evasion case - marking the first time he is facing time behind bars. And just before Christmas, prosecutors also called for a prison sentence of at least one year for Berlusconi on charges of publishing information about a political rival that was obtained illegally. The three-time prime minister, meanwhile, announced he would run for a fourth term in early 2013 after having left political office in late 2011.

Even without a debate, television has played a huge role in determining who will be Italy's prime minister following the Feb. 24-25 election.

ROME -- The prospects of Italy’s first national political debate inched forward Monday after the two leading candidates agreed to a debate -- though their terms for such a face-off differed wildly.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Mario Monti, who is running to continue his mandate, called on the other candidates to agree to a debate in order to give citizens “a chance to make a decision based on a direct comparison between the candidates.”

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

On Monday, the two candidates far ahead of Monti in opinion polls agreed, but under very different conditions: Media mogul and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said he would agree to a debate but only against Pier Luigi Bersani, the front runner. Bersani said he would go for the idea, but only if all the candidates participated. Still, it’s the first time the two leading candidates have agreed to a debate.

Compared to Berlusconi, Bersani is a weak public speaker and may want to avoid a head-to-head face-off against his savvy rival, especially while he clings to a thin lead. Berlusconi is very comfortable on television, but he is thought to respond badly to criticism, which he would likely receive from every other candidate if the full field participated in the event.

The possibility of a U.S.-style political debate has been a hot topic in political circles in Italy. It has never happened before, though Bersani did participate in a primary debate last year in order to earn his coalition’s nomination for the upcoming vote.

Italian law prohibits the release of opinion polls for 15 days before an election, but oddsmakers released betting lines Monday, tapping Bersani as the favorite.

The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on Feb. 11 may help Monti, according to political commentators. The non-stop news coverage of the papal abdication has robbed rival Berlusconi of his favorite forum for wooing voters: TV news programs. And voters will be reminded of Monti’s friendship with the pope and squeaky-clean image, which stands in contrast to Berlusconi’s penchant for personal and legal scandal. But few think it will be enough for Monti to surprise oddsmakers and win the Feb. 24-25 vote.

Berlusconi is hoping that a busy January -- during which he appeared on TV news programs more often than all his rivals combined, in addition to his continued presence on the three national Mediaset networks he controls -- will give him enough momentum to squeak into a fourth term as prime minister.