Berlusconi Unlikely to Win Italy Lower House, Pollster Says

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has cut the lead of frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani’s by half in polls for this month’s elections, probably won’t be able to overtake him, a top pollster said.

“The center-left should have a comfortable majority at the lower house,” Renato Mannheimer, head of polling company Ispo Ltd, said at a press conference in Milan. It’s still uncertain whether Democratic Party leader Bersani can get a majority in the Senate because large swing regions like Lombardy and Sicily are too close to call, he said.

Italy entered a blackout period for polls in the two weeks before elections Feb. 24-25. Berlusconi has been gaining on Bersani as he steps up his promises to cuts taxes and his anti-austerity rhetoric. Bersani risks falling short of a majority in the Senate because Italy’s electoral law assigns seats in that house on a regional basis. He may have to turn to Prime Minister Mario Monti to form a post-vote alliance.

Bersani’s bloc maintained an average 6 percentage-point lead over the former premier on Feb. 8, the day before the blackout for polls kicked in. Bersani’s lead was down from about 14 percentage points a month earlier and one poll had Berlusconi trailing by less than the 4 percentage-point margin of error.

Anti-Austerity Movement

“Many people are still undecided,” Mannheimer said, adding that at the last national elections in 2008 about 20 percent of voters made up their minds in the last week, with 10 percent on the last day. “That’s likely going to happen again.” Mannheimer does polls for Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s largest newspaper by circulation.

The surge in support for an anti-austerity movement founded by comic Beppe Grillo and corruption scandals such as a false accounting probe at Monte Paschi di Siena SpA, are making the outcome of elections even more unpredictable, Mannheimer said.

Grillo’s support has surged to 16.8 percent, based on the average of the last five polls published before the blackout, making it the third-biggest party. Grillo’s Five Star movement is attracting the highest support for first-time voters, with 30 percent, according to Mannheimer.

“All the scandals could have boosted Grillo’s support,” Mannheimer said, though his gains won’t probably be enough to overturn Bersani’s lead in the lower house, he said. Grillo has gained on both Bersani and Berlusconi. A corruption investigation involving Roberto Formigoni, Lombardy’s outgoing president and a member of Berlusconi’s party, and the arrest of the head of defense and aerospace company Finmeccanica SpA are also going to influence the vote.

Berlusconi Gains

“The scandals could hit Berlusconi more,” Mannheimer said, adding that the Italian media coverage of the pope’s resignation also could halt his surge in polls.

Italian law forbids the publication and distribution of poll results in the 15 days before an election, though it allows pollsters to sell results to private clients. One of the reasons for the ban is that undecided voters could be prone to vote for whoever is ahead, Mannheimer said.

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.

Several financial firms, especially foreign banks, are buying new polls in the blackout period, Mannheimer said. “Many are worried about a Berlusconi comeback and about instability,” he said, adding the interest from foreign investors in polls hasn’t been this high since the country’s adoption of the euro from the lira.

“It’s unlikely” that Bersani and Monti won’t be able to form a coalition government after the election, he said. “Still, it’s going to be a complicated alliance. The picture that is shaping up after the vote is of one of instability.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.