Berlusconi or Prodi? This is the question facing Italian voters in the next days. But what effect will the result of the election have beyond Italy's borders? What can Europe and the wider international community expect?
Right or left? The US or Europe? The Italian election is much more than a personality contest
Whoever wins the Italian parliamentary election on April 9-10 -- incumbent center-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi or his bitter center-left rival and former EU Commission President Romano Prodi -- Italy can expect an uncertain future.
If Berlusconi is given five more years of power, experts believe that he will continue to undermine democracy by creating laws which suit his own interests in areas such as the media and the judicial system.
On the other hand if Prodi becomes prime minister Italy could be getting a potential time-bomb government, a mish-mash of leftists who only joined together behind their one common desire: the removal of Berlusconi from power. After achieving that, it is possible the fractious coalition would collapse in an implosion of self-interest.
But what of the wider effects? For the European Union, victory for Berlusconi's coalition would mean it would face five more years of dealing with an Italian prime minister who many perceive as divisive and obtrusive. While it is important to acknowledge differences of opinion within EU institutions and across the elites of EU member states, the overall consensus is that Berlusconi has been more problematic than not.
His numerous critics in the EU believe Berlusconi is nothing more than a businessman who has dragged Italy's economic growth rate to the lowest in Europe, lined his pockets at the country's expense, embroiled the government in corruption scandals and has continually said the wrong things at the wrong time.
Berlusconi's Iraq support an open wound
He has angered more inclusive EU quarters with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and the memory of his cold-shouldering of Europe in favour of Italy's relationship with the United States over Iraq, which so angered EU allies France and Germany, is still fresh. His continued pro-US stance, coupled with the emergence of an increasingly vocal Euro-skepticism within his own ruling coalition, has widely been blamed for weakening Italy's role within the European Union.
Berlusconi likes to be heard but not to listen
Under Berlusconi, Italy has become the thorn in the side of a number of European projects including the European arrest warrant -- which is still not in operation in Italy -- and the Stability and Growth Pact which Italy continues to break with public debt currently standing at around 120 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and its budget deficit at four percent.
From the EU's point of view, there have been very few positives to come from the last five years of Berlusconi rule. The main plus point would be the political stability Italy has enjoyed since his election success in 2001. Berlusconi is the first post-war Italian prime minister to serve a full legislative period, although whether his critics at the EU would see this as a positive is debatable.
Read on: Romano Prodi, Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship