Italians have 32 choices for prime minister when they vote in national parliamentary elections this weekend. Yet the winner could be a familiar face: former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
Berlusconi wants another go as prime minister
Berlusconi is so confident of his lead in the polls that he spent his recent campaign rallies acting as if he's already won the weekend election. But his main rival, former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni, promised that the center-right politician will be in for a nasty surprise after votes are counted.
Veltroni spent the last days of the campaign criss-crossing Italy in a bus, attempting to shave away Berlusconi's lead, which the last polls held two weeks ago put at 6 percentage points.
Both men made impassioned pleas to supporters in the final days of their campaigns. Berlusconi, a 71-year-old self-made billionaire, urged his supporters to help him win over undecided voters ahead of elections Sunday, April 13 and Monday, April 14.
Veltroni, 52, told voters on Friday that Berlusconi was "no statesman" and promised an upset. Veltroni has also been hammering away at Berlusconi's economic record, accusing him of making poor economic decisions.
Slowing economy an election issue
Election fatigue is reportedly high among voters
Italy's next prime minister will have to contend with the country's sputtering economy. Italy faces not only a sharp economic slowdown, but also record-high inflation and low wages. The International Monetary Fund expects Italy's economy, the euro zone's third largest, to grow just 0.3 percent this year.
The two candidates offered similar economic platforms with both pledging tax cuts and reduced government spending.
Alexander Kockerbeck, a senior credit officer at Moody's Investors Service, said the targets set by the two main candidates would be difficult to achieve without a clear election mandate.
"If the outcome (of the vote) is unclear, the risk is a delay in carrying out necessary reforms," Kockerbeck told Reuters news agency.
Fed up with politicians
Vetroni thinks he can pull off an upset
Italy's political class is viewed by much of the population as corrupt, incompetent and gridlocked. Voters have been appalled by the trash piled on the streets of Naples and toxins in the country's beloved buffalo mozzarella cheese.
"Anything politicians touch, it's the kiss of death, the opposite of King Midas," Bocconi university professor Carlo Alberto Carnevale-Maffe told Reuters.
Berlusconi was head of the government between 2001 and 2006. He owns a media empire which includes three of Italy's seven national television networks. Implicated in a string of corruption probes, Berlusconi has been criticized for running up a budget deficit equal to 4.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) during his second premiership.
Since being forced out of power in 2006, he has lobbed scorn from the sidelines as his political opponents have struggled to keep a fractious coalition together. The government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi collapsed in January when a small centrist party withdrew its support.
Worries of a tie
Even mozarella has been tained by politics
Veltroni predicted a surprise win for his center-left party, saying voters were "way ahead of politics, newspapers and polls."
"You'll see that on April 13 we'll have some surprises," Veltroni said.
Even with the lead enjoyed by Berlusconi's PDL party, the Senate race, where votes are determined by region, is expected to be tight. Some analysts have warned that if no party or coalition emerges with a clear-cut majority in the Senate, Italy could be in danger of having a "hung parliament" which would be unable to govern.
"The electoral campaign ends today with the ever more burdensome specter of a result that is not called for in politics: a tie," the daily La Stampa newspaper said in an editorial.
Berlusconi wants clear mandate
The Naples trash scandal was a political lowpoint
Analysts have predicted a lower turnout than in 2006, when nearly 84 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in what turned out to be the closest election in modern Italian history.
Berlusconi tried to prevent a close race at his final campaign rallies, urging supporters to the polls.
"Go and convert people," Berlusconi told supporters at one of his last election rallies outside Rome's Coliseum.
"It's important. You have missionary work to do towards all the undecided voters. You are the missionaries of truth and freedom," Berlusconi said, his voice hoarse from non-stop campaigning.Berlusconi also accused Veltroni of a "campaign of lies" and his party of being communists in disguise. Veltroni, a movie buff and one-time journalist, was a communist in the 1970s, but eventually became a social democrat. Vetroni served as Rome's mayor for seven years until he resigned to run in the national elections.