ROME Pope Benedict's resignation could limit the chances of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi closing the gap on the centre-left frontrunner before this month's election, some pollsters and analysts say.
Berlusconi, who seemed certain to lose a few months ago, has staged an aggressive campaign based on tax-cut promises that has eroded the lead of Pier Luigi Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) and raised the prospect of an inconclusive outcome.
However, some pollsters say the pope's resignation could clip Berlusconi's wings by eclipsing the election campaign on television and newspapers at a time when he has just 12 days left to win over voters.
"This will put the campaign on ice for a while and that is bad news for Berlusconi who still needs to make up ground," said Renato Mannheimer, head of the ISPO polling agency.
Final polls published on Friday before a two-week blackout ahead of the February 24-25 vote gave Bersani an average lead of 5.7 points, down from above 10 percent before start of the campaign.
Under Italy's complicated voting system, that gap would give Bersani a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies, but may not guarantee him a majority in the Senate, where seats are allocated on a regional basis.
Berlusconi's media blitz has involved a spate of "shock announcements" including the promised reimbursement of a hated housing levy, the abolition of payroll taxes on new hires, and an amnesty for tax evaders.
With the election campaign relegated from page one to the around page 15 of the main newspapers on Tuesday, the impact of such announcements can be expected to be diluted for several more days at least.
The pope's decision also dominated Berlusconi's own media empire on Tuesday. He controls three of Italy's seven national free-to-air television channels and the largest magazine publisher.
Although coverage of the Vatican may taper off in the coming days, speculation over Benedict's successor will ensure that it shares the spotlight with the election right up to voting day.
"This is going to take visibility away from Berlusconi, and that should benefit the frontrunner, which is the PD," said Roberto D'Alimonte, Italy's top election expert. "Berlusconi needs space in the media to close the gap."
Another aspect cited by some commentators was a possible connection in voters' minds between the decision of the pope to step aside due to his age and the refusal of Berlusconi to do the same even though he has been prime minister four times and is himself 76-years-old.
"After the pope's announcement Berlusconi seems 20 years older," said political commentator Antonio Polito in a tweet that reflected scores of similar remarks on the social network.
However, some pollsters were sceptical that Benedict's historic decision could affect voting behaviour as all the biggest parties were well known and their broad policy positions have already been laid out.
Nicola Piepoli of the prominent Piepoli Institute said he believed the centre left's lead had already stabilised, while Maurizio Pessato of the SWG agency said the election race would soon force its way back to the front of Italy's news agenda.
"One or two days won't change anything. Now 90 percent of the news is about the pope, but tomorrow it will be 70 percent, and the next day 50 percent and so on," Pessato said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)