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Pope's abdication could thwart Silvio Berlusconi's political comeback

Livio Anticoli/Presidenza del Consiglio via Reuters, file

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI -- seen being greeted by then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at Rome's Ciampino airport in 2009 -- could hamper Berlusconi's political comeback bid, experts say.

ROME -- The abdication of Pope Benedict XVI is a move of global magnitude, but it is causing even bigger waves in Italy, where some experts believe the blanket media coverage could thwart the political comeback of Silvio Berlusconi.

The disgraced former prime minister is seeking a return to the spotlight by leading a center-right alliance in this month’s elections, triggered by the resignation of his successor, Mario Monti.

Berlusconi’s alliance is behind in the polls, not least because of the impending "bunga bunga" court case, where he is accused of paying for sex with an underage nightclub dancer.

But the 76-year-old billionaire has been catching up with the center-left alliance led by Pier Luigi Bersani, using his media empire to make a string of television appearances – last month clocking up 63 hours of airtime in only 21 days.

That media-led surge could now be stopped as newspapers and television stations focus on the pope’s decision to stand aside – and the speculation about who will take over.

The Vatican says the pope will likely not be named pope emeritus to avoid having two popes at once. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

“The election campaign ended at 11:46 a.m. on Monday,” wrote political analyst Luigi Crespi in La Repubblica Tuesday, referring to the moment of Pope Benedict’s announcement.

'Legacy of a moral leader'
He is one of a number of experts who believe the sudden shift in national tone from political concerns to issues of spiritual leadership is likely to hit Berlusconi hardest.

Beppe Severgnini, writing in Corriera della Sera, said the departure of Benedict and the search for his successor would “inevitably fill newspapers, websites, social networks, talk shows and news programs for the next two weeks.”

“And one of the contenders -- no need to say which -- needs all the stage in order to set up the show, and he will not have one,” Severgnini added, in reference to Berlusconi. “A story like this forces you to think about the role, responsibilities, and the legacy of a moral leader.”

That will add to the pressure on Berlusconi, even though his "bunga bunga" trial hearing was this week delayed until March 4 – a week after the parliamentary poll, which takes place on Feb. 24 and 25.

Marcello Sorgi, a columnist for La Stampa newspaper, said the actions of all politicians in Italy would be seen less favorably when compared to the pope’s humility and self-realization that he is no longer physically able to serve his church.

Voters will see the pope’s act as courageous and compare him to "a political class that has been living off its failures for 20 years," Sorgi wrote, according to Agence France Press.

Giovanni Orsina, political commentator and professor of history at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, said it was “hard to say” if the pope’s resignation would affect the way Catholics vote.

Petar Pismestrovic / Kleine Zeitung, Austria, Politic

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“But it certainly will have an impact on whichever candidate is the most hungry for television coverage and who has the most to gain from media exposure – and that is definitely Berlusconi,” he said. “He is the person who needs to use the media the most.”

“I think it is unprecedented for such a big event in the Catholic church to happen so close to the climax of an election campaign like this,” he added.

Orsina pointed out that opinion polls are banned in Italy for the final two weeks of the campaign, making it hard to measure how the pope’s decision has affected voting intentions.

In November 2011, Berlusconi was forced to resign as prime minister after it became clear that his denial that the country was in an economic crisis was bringing Italy to the brink of disaster.

In October last year, he was sentenced to four years in prison for an epic offshore tax fraud, put off pending appeals to higher courts.

He was also placed at a distance by the Vatican, which grew concerned that his personal life did not reflect his political rhetoric of moral leadership.

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