Italy's Silvio Berlusconi Surging in Election Polls, Despite Legal and Personal Scandals

42 REP Silvio Berlusconi H
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Freshly ousted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did not have much success in attempting to save his country's economy, and now he faces the similarly difficult task of rescuing his media empire.

The media tycoon's surge has erased more than half his deficit against frontrunner Gian Luigi Bersani, and it threatens to turn February vote into a two-man race.

ROME – With a dramatic rise in the polls attributed to the power of television, Italian media tycoon and three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is dramatically changing the dynamics of next month’s national elections.

Barely 14 months ago, Berlusconi resigned from office amid personal and legal problems and fears he was pushing Italy to become a victim of the European debt crisis. Now, a month before the elections that will decide the country’s next prime minister, Berlusconi is surging in the polls, leaving his rivals scrambling to confront his rising fortunes.

Experts say that Berlusconi is still a long shot to become Italy’s prime minister a fourth time, mostly because of the electoral math that appears to favor Pier Luigi Bersani, who remains the frontrunner. But the lead Bersani’s bloc has over Berlusconi and his allies is shrinking fast: according to polling firm Opinioni, Bersani’s lead over Berlusconi this week is 36 percent to 29 percent; three weeks ago, Bersani had a 39 percent to 22 percent advantage.

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Most of Berlusconi’s progress seems to have come at the expense of incumbent Mario Monti, who replaced Berlusconi when he resigned in November 2011. Three weeks ago, Monti was polling at 21 percent, in a virtual tie with Berlusconi. Now, his support has slipped to 15 percent, closer to the second-tier candidates than to Bersani and Berlusconi. 

The biggest difference between Bersani and Berlusconi? It is the former’s emphasis on television: According to the Turin daily newspaper La Stampa, Berlusconi spent a little more than 63 hours campaigning on 54 different television and radio programs between Dec. 24 and Jan. 14, when the foundation for the current surge in the polls was laid. The more low-key Bersani spent just 28 hours appearing on television and radio programs over the same span.

“Berlusconi’s aggressive television campaign and ease at connecting with common people are paying dividends,” said Maria Rossi, Opinioni’s co-director.

A wildcard in the campaign is the prospect of a head-to-head debate among the main candidates for prime minister, something that has never been done before in Italy. Both state broadcaster RAI and Sky-Italia, a local subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., have said they would like to host the event.

But it’s not sure if the candidates will agree. Until recently, it was thought that Bersani might not want to risk his lead in the polls by debating his main rivals. But Berlusconi’s surge may force him to change strategy. Berlusconi, meanwhile, is a natural on television, but he is uncomfortable in the face of the kind of criticism his rivals would no doubt throw his way. Additionally, he may not want to participate in a television event that could boost the ratings of one of the two main rivals for Mediaset, the television and cinema giant he controls.

Monti and two other candidates -- comedian and activist Beppe Grillo, and anti-mafia judge Antonio Ingroia -- are now trailing the other two candidates and would clearly embrace an opportunity to debate them on national television. Monti, especially, could show his mettle armed with the expertise he has earned pulling Italy back from the brink of economic collapse as prime minister.

Berlusconi's rise has sparked speculation that Bersani and Monti could form an alliance to prevent a possible Berlusconi victory, though Monti has said he would not join forces with Bersani unless he shed some of his most extreme allies -- something Bersani said he would not consider.

In addition to Mediaset, Berlusconi owns a major ad buying company, several print media and the AC Milan soccer team. But the 76-year-old tycoon is best known for courting scandal: in October he was sentenced to four years behind bars for tax evasion, and in December, prosecutors in Milan asked for a further year in prison in a wire tap case. He is also under investigation for abuse of power and for paying an underage girl for sex. He is known for his taste for young women, and recently announced his engagement to Francesca Pascale, a woman 49 years his junior.