Pope, Music Festival May Have Clipped Berlusconi’s Poll Momentum

Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation and the popular San Remo music festival may have clipped some of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s momentum in the campaign for Italy’s end-of-month election amid a blackout on opinion polls.

Pope Benedict’s Feb. 11 announcement that he would become the first pontiff in almost 600 years to call it quits has blown the election campaign off the front pages and has dominated television news programs since.

Berlusconi’s prime-time presence also suffered when the Sanremo festival opened on Feb. 13, coinciding with a series of evening news conferences being held by the main political parties. Berlusconi ended up skipping his conference and sending an underling along instead, well aware of what the clash meant: Sanremo drew 42.8 percent of viewers compared with the 1.4 percent who chose to watch the former Berlusconi Cabinet minister talk.

The saturation coverage of the Pope is hurting Berlusconi as well as former comic-turned politician Beppe Grillo, the most media savvy of the candidates, said pollster Renato Mannheimer. “Every day they miss a front page in newspapers and audience on TV, some votes are lost,” he said.

Prior to the Feb. 9 blackout on opinion polls, Berlusconi was on the march. One survey on Feb. 6 put him within its four-point margin of error behind the leader. The five final polls on Feb. 8 showed him trailing front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani by an average 6 percentage points, less than half the lag of a month earlier.

Berlusconi did manage to capture some headlines on Feb. 14 when he defended bribery in a television interview, saying it was pure masochism for Italy’s biggest companies such as Finmeccanica, Eni or Enel to eschew paying bribes to win contracts. Top officials at both defense contractor Finmeccanica and oil company Eni are currently embroiled in bribery scandals.

“Bribes are a phenomenon that exists and it’s useless to deny the existence of these necessary situations,” Berlusconi, 76, said. “These are not crimes. We’re talking about paying a commission to someone in that country. Why? Because those are the rules in that country.”

Given the poll blackout, which aims to prevent voters from being influenced by opinion surveys in the final two weeks of the campaign, Italians won’t be able to gauge the impact of the Pope and San Remo until the exit polls come out after voting ends at 3pm on Feb. 25.

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