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Pope resignation eclipses Italian election campaign


Pope Benedict XVI's shock announcement that he will resign on February 28 has stunned the world and put Italy's election campaign firmly in second place on the international stage.

Italians take to the polls in less than two weeks for what in any other circumstance would be a momentous election, with European capitals waiting to see what direction the ailing eurozone economy will take.

There is a strong chance that the new government will be formed just as the 85-year-old pope resigns due to old age -- only the second to do so in the Catholic Church's 2,000-year history and the first in more than 700 years.

Analysts say it could have a major impact on the outcome of the February 24-25 vote, stopping Silvio Berlusconi's rise in the polls and perhaps even shaming Italy's notoriously bickering politicians and their long-time attachment to power.

"We'll have less media attention," Berlusconi grumbled in one interview.

The irrepressible billionaire tycoon had been gaining ground in recent weeks against the cigar-chomping former communist Pier Luigi Bersani, who is still ahead by at least four percentage points in all the most recent polls.

Pollster Renato Mannheimer, head of the Ispo polling institute, said the unprecedented transition of power at the Vatican could "damage" the campaigns of Berlusconi and populist blogger Beppe Grillo, who both rely heavily on media exposure.

The centre-right Berlusconi, once the darling of the Vatican for his conservative, pro-Church views, has fallen precipitously out of favour with a relentless stream of sex scandals.

And as for Grillo, Alessandra Ghisleri from Euromedia Research said he was "the most heretical from the media point of view" and was likely to "get stuck".

Pollster Luigi Crespi went even further in an interview with La Repubblica daily saying that after the pope's words: "The election campaign is over."

The first days of a new government that faces immediate economic challenges will coincide with the papal election in a secret conclave of cardinals -- an archaic tradition held in the Sistine Chapel that reliably captures world attention.

Italian stand-up comedian Maurizio Crozza joked about the coincidence this week, portraying Bersani -- a somewhat uncharismatic former government minister who has been itching to be prime minister for a long time -- as an eternal loser.

"Bersani is so unlucky that even if he wins the election, the pope resigns on the 28th and he'll still be in second place," Crozza said.

All the main candidates have been careful to heap praise on Benedict as they compete for every vote in this predominantly Catholic country.

Outgoing prime minister Mario Monti, who is seen as the most Catholic of the main contenders, was careful to draw a distinction with politics though.

"Let's keep the sacred and the profane of the elections separate," he said.

But some analysts say it is precisely the sight of these two worlds in juxtaposition that could further discredit Italy's discredited political class.

Marcello Sorgi, a columnist for La Stampa daily, said politicians have been so busy "competing for votes in an incredible vanity fair" that they had failed to understand the "epochal significance" of the pope's resignation.

Voters, he said, will see the "strident" difference between on one hand the courageous act of a pope who recognises his failings and on the other "a political class that has been living off its failures for 20 years".

Columnist Marco Travaglio agreed, saying the pope's announcement put into a fresh light "Italy's decrepit candidates -- both in terms of age and politically -- and their attachment to their posts until death".