Berlusconi Gains in Polls as Italians Swayed by Media Blitz

Silvio Berlusconi, fighting criminal charges that he paid a minor for sex, gained in opinion polls as a series of television interviews placed the three-time premier once again at the center of the Italian political debate.

Public support for Berlusconi’s coalition rose to 27.9 percent from 25.3 percent a month ago, according to an EMG poll release by television station La 7 late yesterday. Front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani’s coalition slipped to 37.4 percent from 40.3 percent, while Prime Minister Mario Monti’s group gained to 14.8 percent. Monti polled at 9.9 percent a month ago, prior to declaring his candidacy.

Berlusconi, 76, is promising tax cuts and has taken to television to display the combativeness that helped make him the dominant politician of his generation. He has won public support by blaming Monti for Italy’s recession, while in the courtroom, his lawyers are struggling to delay a verdict on the sex allegations until after parliamentary elections Feb. 24-25. His comeback has drawn brickbats from opponents.

Berlusconi is “someone who misled Italians three times,” Monti said yesterday in an interview on state broadcaster RAI. “That Italians could once again believe the reliability of promises of this kind from that mouth makes me think of just one thing, the fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and the good mice.”

Pied Piper

The Pied Piper, according to Robert Browning’s 1888 version of the fable, saved a rat-infested town by bewitching the vermin with his music and drowning them in a river. When the Piper was denied his compensation, in Browning’s tale, he took revenge by entrancing the town’s children and leading them away.

Berlusconi, a billionaire media magnate, has blanketed national and local TV by agreeing to interviews with journalists, both friendly and adversarial. He drew an audience of almost 9 million last week when he appeared for nearly three hours on a program hosted by Michele Santoro, a journalist Berlusconi had fired from state-owned RAI a decade ago.

Draghi for President

Berlusconi made headlines today by saying in an interview on La 7’s Omnibus show that his vote for Italian president would go to European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, if his name were proposed to parliament. In Italy, the prime minister is head of government and the president, who serves as head of state, is chosen by lawmakers. A spokeswoman for Draghi said in an e-mail that the ECB president planned to serve out his term, which ends in 2019.

Berlusconi suffered a setback yesterday in court when judges rejected the billionaire’s request for a delay due to the election campaign. The trial, which also includes charges of abuse of power, which Berlusconi denies, will have at least three more hearings. The final one is scheduled for Feb. 4.

“The verdict is certainly going to come before the election,” said Berlusconi’s lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini. “This is the clear intention of the judges and this is going to disrupt the election campaign.”

Berlusconi has denied ever paying for sex and said he thought Karima El Mahroug, the woman at the center of the case, was 24 in February 2010 when she says she attended at least one of the billionaire’s parties. El Mahroug, who was 17 at the time, denied having sex with the former premier.

Renouncing Premiership

Berlusconi’s gain in the polls came even after the billionaire renounced his bid to become prime minister again in a concession to an allied party. The Northern League, a member of all three Berlusconi governments, agreed to join the coalition on the condition that Berlusconi wasn’t the prime minister candidate.

Angelino Alfano, secretary general of Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, will be the candidate and Berlusconi will seek the post of finance minister, Berlusconi said in an interview yesterday on Sky TG24’s “Lo Spoglio” program.

The advance by Berlusconi, who has advocated a tougher stance negotiating with Germany about Europe’s focus on austerity, hasn’t noticeably hurt Italy in bond markets. The yield on the country’s 10-year bond has dropped to 4.16 percent from 4.6 percent a month ago as analysts including Douglas Renwick, managing director at Fitch Ratings, predict budget rigor will be maintained after the vote.

Monti Agenda

“The most likely outcome is a continuation of the Monti policy agenda,” Renwick said today at a Fitch seminar in London. “Whatever government is in place in Italy there is going to be a lot of external pressure coming from the rest of the euro zone to stay on this path of fiscal prudence and further reform. The reform drive in Italy might slow a little bit over the next year.”

Berlusconi is making gains in the north that could deny the Bersani’s coalition a majority in the Senate, where seats are awarded on a regional basis, even if it carries the national vote by the current margin. Berlusconi’s group leads with 35.7 percent in Lombardy to 32.3 percent, according to an ISPO poll published by Corriere della Sera on Jan. 13.

The EMG poll was more favorable to Berlusconi than others released in recent days. In a poll yesterday by Tecne for Sky TG24, Bersani’s Democratic Party and its allies had 37.8 to Berlusconi’s 26 percent. SWG Institute released a poll on Jan. 11 giving the center-left alliance 40.4 percent to 25.3 percent for Berlusconi and his partners. Both those polls showed gains for Berlusconi’s coalition.

Berlusconi said on “Lo Spoglio” that his own poll conducted by Euromedia has his coalition trailing by less than 5 percentage points, with his bloc winning support from 34.2 percent to 38.3 percent for the Democratic Party and its partners.

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