Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's dramatic comeback… (Andreas Solaro / AFP/Getty…)
ROME — Weeks before Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation because of failing health, Italians were already bracing themselves for a change at the top.
But the elections to pick a new Italian government this month have been overshadowed and potentially thrown for a loop by Benedict's shocking decision to be the first pontiff to step down in almost 600 years.
The 85-year-old's final Mass on Wednesday, which drew the kind of cheering fans to St. Peter's Basilica that politicians dream of, dominated pages of newspapers that Italy's political candidates had hoped to fill with dramatic campaign promises and choice insults aimed at their opponents.
Benedict told a group of priests on Thursday that he would "remain hidden" after he retires, but reports that he had cut his head on a trip to Mexico last year and his warning in a speech about divisions in the church led the news in Italy.
Pollsters have said the candidate with most to lose from blanket coverage of Benedict is former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had fueled a big comeback in the polls with dozens of TV appearances and a series of surprise announcements, including a rebate of a hated property tax.
After surging to within 5 points of his center-left coalition opponents — he lagged by 17 percentage points in December — Berlusconi may find that the news from the Vatican has denied him the time he needs to draw even, political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte said.
"This has taken the wind out of the sails of Berlusconi's comeback," said D'Alimonte, a professor of politics at LUISS University in Rome. "He must be very upset because he needs visibility for his fireworks, his big announcements, and people aren't looking at him, all to the benefit of the center-left."
Berlusconi, 76, who returned to politics last year after stepping down as prime minister in 2011, also risks unfavorable comparisons with Benedict, who has decided old age is a good reason to resign. Berlusconi's bawdy jokes — this week he aimed a series of sexual innuendoes at a woman during a speech — risk losing their appeal as voters applaud Benedict's pious demeanor.
In a bid to gain airtime, Berlusconi has already demanded a shift in the schedule of the Sanremo music festival, a wildly popular TV song contest that has aired every night this week, drawing a viewing share as high as 50%.
A former cruise ship crooner before he became a property and TV tycoon, Berlusconi said he was even willing to show up at the theater where the contest is held and sing.
"Sanremo means millions of Italians not paying attention to him," D'Alimonte said. "After this, he has just one week to regain the momentum."
Besides news coverage devoted to the song contest and Benedict, politicians have also been denied attention by a slew of fresh scandals involving state-controlled firms and a politician accused of buying champagne and face cream using cash from corrupt contractors.
Focus is also shifting to predicting which cardinal will become pope in March, cutting into the debate as to which politician can become prime minister Feb. 25. The pope's final Angelus in St. Peter's Square, which will receive massive coverage, is scheduled for Feb. 24, the first of two days on which Italians can vote.
One politician who stands to gain from the tumult at the Vatican is Mario Monti, the outgoing Italian prime minister who seeks to return to the post. Monti, who has been supported by Vatican officials fed up with Berlusconi's sex scandals, is the only candidate who has been invited by Benedict to a farewell meeting, which will be held Sunday.
Kington is a special correspondent.