After a year under Mario Monti's technocratic government, Italians return to the polls on Sunday February 24 in an election that is being closely watched by financial markets and Europe's policymakers.
With a third of the votes still up for grabs, concern is growing that the next government will be too weak to implement economic reforms, or worse, that the public could elect an anti-establishment upstart.
Opinion polls, earlier this month, predicted that the vote will deliver a working majority in both houses for a center-left coalition, governing in alliance with Prime Minister Mario Monti.
But, there is still the possibility of a surprise result from one of the colorful cast of candidates, which includes disgraced media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
Click ahead for a guide to the key players in the election, including the party they belong to and their political views.
By Bianca Schlotterbeck and Holly Ellyatt
Posted February 21 2013
Democratic Party (center-left)
Market favorite, Pier-Luigi Bersani is the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, tipped to win the elections. The former communist is a pro-European, pro-reform candidate who has already served a stint as industry and transport minister in the 1990s.
Though Bersani is the front-runner in polls published before a polling blackout began on February 9, he lacks the charisma of Berlusconi and the populism of Beppe Grillo. He is not expected to garner enough votes to govern alone and analysts predict he will form an alliance with technocrat Mario Monti to gain a majority of seats in both the lower house and Senate –essential if a new government is to successfully pass legislation on economic reforms.
People of Liberty Party (center-right)
Nicknamed "Il Cavaliere" or "the Knight," billionaire Silvio Berlusconi is best known for his lavish lifestyle, scandalous past and elaborate TV appearances. Convicted of tax fraud in October 2012, Berlusconi appealed the sentence, allowing him to run for a fifth term in office. Despite several high profile scandals in his public and private life, he is seen as the "comeback king" and was placed second in opinion polls conducted in early February.
The media magnate gained votes after promising a tax amnesty for evaders and the abolition of a widely unpopular real estate tax – a potential vote winner as 80 percent of Italians own their own homes. Though he could pull off a "surprise" victory, according to analysts, many voters are weary of the womanizing media magnate from his "bunga bunga" sex parties to alleged corruption scandals.
5 Star Movement (anti- establishment)
Beppe Grillo, the shaggy-haired comedian and former lawyer heads the protest vote called the "5 Star Movement." Formed in 2009, the grass-roots movement gained in regional elections in 2012 and now heads councils in Parma and Sicily.
Known for his foul-mouthed rants against the establishment and his anti-European and anti-euro stance, Grillo's popularity has spread through his use of internet campaigning. Grillo has travelled 6,200 miles around Italy in a camper van, holding rallies in cities that have drawn up to 100,000 supporters.
Though he was in third place in the polls with 16 percent of the vote before a blackout on opinion polls began, analysts told CNBC Grillo is the "joker in the pack" that should not be underestimated. Sources on the ground also said that a private survey was now putting Grillo ahead of Berlusconi. But Grillo has ruled out running for prime minister, as he was convicted in 1980 over a car accident in which three people died. Instead, he told CNBC, he is just a spokesman and guarantor of the movement.
Monti List (centrist alliance)
Outgoing prime minister, Mario Monti is the technocrat leading the centrist coalition. An economist by profession, Monti was "chosen" to be a caretaker prime minister in 2011 in order to stabilize the Italian economy after Berlusconi resigned. Nicknamed "Super Mario" by the Italian press, he is "Europe's choice" in Sunday's elections having implemented austerity measures, tax increases and reforms that have stabilized Italy but antagonized many Italians.
Though he lacks the public persona that Italians tend to favor in their politicians, Monti is seen as a stabilizing influence on markets and someone who can help Italy reverse its economic slowdown. The father-of-two is not without a sense of humour; cracking dead-pan jokes to an audience at the World Economic Forum in January and adopting a puppy live on television.
Though Monti is languishing in fourth place he is expected to be called upon to form a coalition with front-runner Pier-Luigi Bersani, a move that could reassure investors that Italy's reforms will continue.
Northern League (right wing)
Starting his political career as a Marxist-Leninist militant, Roberto Maroni became the Northen League's first elected mayor in 1992, taking over leadership of the party after a series of corruption scandals forced out Umberto Bossi in 2012.
The Northern League is the biggest opposition party in parliament and has long campaigned for more autonomy or even secession for Northern Italy, which it says heavily subsidizes the South.
Maroni's campaign is based on a pledge to clean up the party following a series of corruption scandals, oppose Mari Monti's reform program and pass tough anti-immigration measures.
Civil Revolution (left wing)
Antonio Ingroia, the former public prosecutor known for going after the Mafia and members of Berlusconi's PDL party, joined the race at the last minute with the left wing, Civil Revolution party. The party has campaigned on the issue of social equality, pledging to increase taxes on the wealthy, promote small to medium enterprises and fight against the Mafia.