By Naomi O'Leary
ROME (Reuters) - Which horse are you backing in the Italian election?
A blog appears to have found a way around a publishing ban on polls in the two weeks before the vote by writing up the results of pretend "underground horse races", which appear to reflect each party's standing.
During the blackout period, pollsters continue to conduct surveys for their clients but are banned from publishing their findings in case they influence the vote on February 24-25.
But as in the last French presidential election, when people outside France used transparent parody names on Twitter to reveal the results of exit polls that could not be published at home, the Internet is proving more difficult to control.
On the final day polls could be published before the blackout fell, bloggers Andrea Mancia and Simone Bressan posted "The illegal races return!" on their site Notapolitica.it setting out the main "stables" and "jockeys" competing.
In line with the last published official polls, the winning horses of Tuesday's "San Nicola Racetrack" came from the "Bien Comun" stables, a thinly disguised name for the centre-left "Italia Bene Comune" coalition.
The centre right of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was shown coming in just 3.5 "seconds" behind.
The veracity of the race results indicating the pollsters' surveys cannot be established.
Michele di Lollo, an editor of notapolitica.it, denied the races reflected the results of real political polls.
"It's just a game," di Lollo told Reuters. "But everyone can interpret it as they want, if you know what I mean."
Using a mix of puns and French, Notapolitica.it renders centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani as jockey "Pier le Smacchiateur" and Mario Monti as "Mario de la Montaigne". Berlusconi is dubbed "Burlesque".
Horses representing Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement are referred to as "stellar", while the names of races allude to different pollsters. "San Walter Giuliano Racecourse", for example, appears to refer to research group SWG.
Another blog, YouTrend.it, took advantage of the resignation of Pope Benedict to publish polls purportedly reflecting currents in the papal conclave to elect the next pontiff, but with non-existent cardinals who closely resemble key politicians.
Pitting conservative and liberal factions of imaginary cardinals against each other, YouTrend.it on Monday revealed that the "progressive front" in the conclave was several points ahead of the Vatican's right-leaning faction.
On the blog, "The Cardinal of Monza and Brianza" refers to the region where Berlusconi has his stately home, Arcore, site of the notorious "bunga bunga" parties alleged by TV starlets.
Bersani ally Nichi Vendola, famous for a diamond hoop earring in his left ear, is dubbed "the bejewelled archbishop", while Sicilian anti-mafia prosecutor Antonio Ingroia is "the grand inquisitor of the Sacred Office of Palermo".
It put the "five-starred chamberlain of Genoa", a clear reference to Grillo, as the third largest group, several points ahead of an "austere Milanese cardinal" who would suggest Monti.
It is a sign of how the Internet is shaking up a political landscape once dominated by television and publishing mogul Berlusconi, whose four terms as prime minister were often linked by observers to his formidable media power.
The 5-Star Movement has become the country's third biggest party while shunning mainstream media interviews and relying on blogging power and local meet ups, while instant factchecking on Twitter became a minor craze during pre-electoral debates.
But the ban on the media publishing polls remains and anyone found to have broken it during the blackout faces a maximum fine of 250,000 euro ($333,800), according to media regulator Agcom.
"Those treating it ironically like us aren't breaking the law, but if someone published the polls as polls they would get investigated and maybe fined," YouTrend.it editor Lorenzo Pregliasco told Reuters. He also denied the polls were real but added "those who understand, understand".
Only with the publication of the first official exit poll in a week's time will Italians know for sure which jockey, as it were, is to finish first in the race. ($1 = 0.7490 euros)
(Editing by Alison Williams)