Papal Resignation Could Cost Berlusconi His Prime Minister Bid

42 REP Silvio Berlusconi H
Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images

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.

Pope Benedict's abdication is dominating Italian news reports, robbing the controversial media kingpin's campaign of its greatest stage.

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.

STORY: Sinead O'Connor: 'Pope Benedict's Greatest Achievement Is This Act of Retiring'

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.”