Berlusconi Surge May Be Halted by Pope During Poll Blackout

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s surge in support before elections this month may be damped by Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, which is dominating media coverage in Italy during the run-up period in which opinion polls are banned.

“The electoral campaign ended at 11:46 a.m.” on Feb. 11, said pollster and political commentator Luigi Crespi, referring to the time of the pope’s announcement.

News about Benedict’s decision, which makes him the first pope to resign in almost 600 years, has dominated print and television news coverage, overshadowing the election campaign less than two weeks before the Feb. 24-25 vote. The pontiff’s announcement came two days after the start of a poll blackout designed to keep surveys from influencing voters before election day. The ban will make it difficult to gauge the impact of Benedict’s resignation on the race.

“Berlusconi needs broad media coverage to regain votes because, looking at the polls, if elections were held today he’d lose,” Giovanni Orsina, a professor at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, said by phone yesterday. “The fact that the media are busy with something else for sure can hurt him.”

Berlusconi, a 76-year-old billionaire, has flooded the airwaves with televised interviews, helping him narrow frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani’s lead by more than half. The former premier, who owns the nation’s largest private broadcaster, has used the appearances to attack his rivals and attract voters, offering tax rebates to Italians weary of recession and opposed to austerity measures enacted by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti.

Conflict, Confrontation

“An election campaign works if conflict, controversy and confrontation are at the center of attention,” Crespi said. “It’s this area that determines shifts in undecided voters.” After such a “clamorous and exceptional event” as the resignation, “the status quo prevails and it helps frontrunners the most,” he said.

Bersani’s bloc maintained an average 6 percentage-point lead over the former premier on Feb. 8, the day before the blackout kicked in. The five polls published that day showed that about 30 percent of potential voters remained undecided or planned to abstain. Bersani’s lead was down from about 14 percentage points a month earlier and one major poll last week had Berlusconi trailing by less than the 4 percentage-point margin of error.

Investors Spooked

Berlusconi’s gains in the polls have rattled investors on concern that, if elected, he would undo some of Monti’s reforms and jeopardize Italy’s public finances with tax cuts. The yield on Italy’s benchmark 10-year bond has gained 37 basis points since Jan. 25 as Berlusconi’s gains became apparent.

While it’s difficult to say whether one of the candidates may benefit from the announcement, the news may “cool down” the heated tones of the campaign, Fabrizio Masia, head of Italian pollster EMG, said in a phone interview yesterday.

The Vatican saga “will probably be given ample space by the media in the next few days, I don’t know until when, and so attention will be taken away from the political forces,” Masia said. The pope will meet privately with Monti on Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. and with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano Feb. 23, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said at briefing with reporters in Rome today. Benedict’s final general audience will be Feb. 27.

First passed in 1993, the polling ban was implemented in 2000, when it became part of a broader law commonly called “par condicio,” Latin for equal conditions, which seeks to balance the time parties are afforded on TV and radio stations before elections.

‘Piece of Prehistory’

“It’s a piece of prehistory that has survived, but the world has changed,” Maurizio Mensi, professor of information and communication law at Luiss University in Rome, said in a phone interview. “It reflects a world where TV was considered an extraordinary tool to build consensus. Now it’s not like that anymore, because citizens have tons of other ways to access information.”

While the law forbids the publication and distribution of poll results in the 15 days before an election, it does allows pollsters to sell results to private clients, likely making diffusion of results “inevitable,” said Renato Mannheimer, head of polling company Ispo Ltd. In past blackout periods poll figures have circulated on the Internet disguised as results of fake horse races, he said.

Banned Application

Italian communications regulator AGCOM this month blocked an initiative by the SWG institute to sell poll results on smartphones and tablets for 9.99 euros ($13.4), even during the blackout period. The application involved would have made “results of surveys available to a potentially vast audience, with inevitable effects of uncontrolled spread of information,” the authority said in a statement posted on its website Feb. 6.

“Today a politician who wants to buy a poll” can do so, “while thousands of citizens willing to spend 10 euros each to have the same information can’t,” SWG said in an e-mailed statement Feb. 7.

If the blackout holds, the next time Italians can gauge voting intentions will be shortly after 3 p.m. on Feb. 25, when the first exit polls are released.

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