The Jaguar Killer

Pier Luigi Bersani

Leader: Pier Luigi Bersani, 61, Bettola (Emilia-Romagna)

Party Democratic party (PD)

Story and programme A former communist and son of a mechanic, Bersani is the cigar-chomping frontrunner in the Italian elections, with 30-35 percent support. As the leader of the Democratic party, Bersani has gradually become a credible and decent alternative to Berlusconi, despite his allergy to TV cameras, where he often appears awkward and uncomfortable.

A fan of the rock group AC/DC, Bersani is married to a pharmacist from his home town in Emilia-Romagna. His colourful speeches, full of folksy - and sometimes cryptic - proverbs, made him the target of comedians but also gained him some popularity.

As a minister of economic development in the last leftist administration, Romano Prodi's 2006 government, Bersani paved the way for timid reforms in the direction of market liberalisation and competition, cutting for instance the cost of using a mobile phone, and liberalising the electricity and banking industries.

However, the PD is backed by the country's biggest trade unions which opposed Prime Minister Mario Monti's attempts to reform the labour market and Bersani's main ally, the Marxist-inspired Left, Ecology and Liberty party of Nichi Vendola, the governor of Puglia, would like to pull the prime minister further left. PD's image has also been damaged by revelations of murky derivatives deals at Monte dei Paschi bank, traditionally close to the left.

Key words and slogans "Let's take the spots off the jaguar." (The jaguar is Berlusconi.)

Who will vote for them? Intellectuals, old communists or nostalgic socialists, public sector and civil workers, unions and radicals.

Silvio Berlusconi

The Comeback King

Leader Silvio Berlusconi, 76, Milan

Party The People of Freedom

Story and programme The three-time prime minister, master communicator and billionaire media tycoon has turned the miserable destiny of his party, the People of Freedom, from oblivion to a raging bull in less than one year. He may not win the elections, but his bold move and untenable promises caused more than a headache for his main contender, Bersani.

The remarkable surge of his party - at 39 percent, according to some polls - is due mainly to Berlusconi's outstanding TV charisma. He grabbed literally every minute of broadcast space he could. He won a shouting match with two left-wing journalists on their own TV programme. He promised extensive tax cuts and a €4bn property tax rebate, a move that has been ridiculed but is also likely to persuade many swing voters.

Many Italians seem to have forgiven him for the lurid sex scandal around Ruby the Heart-stealer and the Greek-style debt crisis that has hovered over the country. And the signing of Mario Balotelli to his AC Milan side may win him a majority in the battleground region of Lombardy. In an extreme attempt to win over undecided voters, Berlusconi sent a letter to Italians promising to abolish a widely hated tax.

Key words and slogans "If Monti wins, I will get drunk."

Who will vote for them? Housewives, businessmen, conservative, Milan supporters, communist-haters.

Beppe Grillo

Five-Star Clown

Leader: Beppe Grillo, 64, Savignone (near Genova), not standing for election because a manslaughter conviction bars him according to the party's own rules

Party: Five Star Movement

Story and programme Dubbed "sans-culottes satirist" ("the trouserless joker"), showman, extremista and charismatic former comedian Beppe Grillo managed to stir a crowd of more than 30,000 people in Milan into a rage against Italy's establishment and corrupt political system as part of his "Tsunami Tour". His Movimento 5 Stelle 's campaign focused on five key areas: public water, transportation, development, internet availability and the environment. He appeals to those voters frustrated by Italy's political and corporate class.

"We are occupying a void, which in other places, like Greece, has been filled by Nazis and extremists," Grillo told the Financial Times in 2012. "We are a response to government parasitism and, corruption, a system of political diarrhoea."

Grillo's nicknames for Berlusconi - Psycho Dwarf - and Monti - Rigor Montis - sum up his passion for foul-mouthed jokes. According to recent polls, the 5-Star movement was the third force with 16 percent. Grillo himself is not standing for election but is the charismatic guru of a team of politically untested candidates, including teachers and IT workers.

"Grillo has become credible when he talks about change because he has been pounding [the table] for years on the non-candidacy of people who have been indicted [and] on the cost of politics, which is a good selling point because Italians are fed up with the waste of money of politicians," Roberto D'Alimonte, professor of politics in Italian LUISS University, told IBTimes UK.

Key words and slogan Anti-Europe, anti-austerity and anti-euro. Pro-green economy, internet access for all, and defence cuts.

Who will vote for them? Young people frustrated with Italy's old politics, and swing voters (a lot of people).

Mario Monti

The Man in the Middle

Leader: Mario Monti, 69, Varese (near Milan)

Party: With Monti for Italy

Story and programme A sober, well-respected former European commissioner, outgoing premier Mario Monti plunged into politics in December with a market-focused economic programme to "change Italy and reform Europe". Since then, his dry English wit often turned to down-to-earth political statement, whipping one side or the other of his enemies in a clear continuity of the tradition of centrist politics in Italy. But his Scelta Civica (Civic Choice) coalition - made up of two former supporters of Berlusconi, the Christian Democrat Pier Ferdinando Casini and the former leader of the far-right National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini - is short on popularity. It is stuck behind Grillo on less than 15 percent of the vote.

The economist himself failed to meet the expectations of investors and foreign governments that he could lead a radical renewal in Italy. He believes in lower state spending, private rather than state-owned corporations, and a free labour regime. He embraces globalisation and thinks society and economy must adapt. His programme includes wage cuts, public spending cuts, and lower pensions paid later in life.

Key words and slogans Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.

Who will vote for them? Nostalgic supporters of the Christian Democrat's "soft regime", businessmen, industrial owners frustrated by Berlusconi.

Antonio Ingroia

Les Incoruptibles

Leader Antonio Ingroia, 53, Palermo

Party Civic Revolution

Story and programme Bearded anti-mafia prosecutor Antonio Ingroia, targeted by comedians for his indolence, has set up a party called "Civic Revolution" where radical leftists and angry anti-corruption politicians blend together in an unusual mix."We are the only real left-wing, "Ingroia said, damaging the prospect of an alliance between the Democratic Party and outgoing prime minister Mario Monti.

Ingroia has called for the scrapping of Monti's pension reforms, a minimum wage for young people and for an increase in child benefits. He says he can fund his plans by fighting tax evasion and seizing what he says are é170bn (£147bn) in untouched criminal assets.

Key words and slogans Transparency, legality and fighting the mafia on corruption.

Who will vote for them? Hardline leftists, former prosecutors, and everyone who wants to see Berlusconi in jail.

Oscar Giannino

Dandy Libertarian

Leader: Oscar Fulvio Giannino, 52, Turin

Party: Stopping the Decline

Story and programme Moustachioed, flamboyant and with a pristine bald head, Giannino is unquestionably Italy's most fashionable politician, as his pink waistcoats show. Sartorial choices apart, the prominent business journalist founded "Stopping the Decline" or Fare per Fermare il Declino to promote economic liberalism in a country thwarted by corporatism, state-controlled businesses and nepotism.

His radical free-market campaign could erode support for Silvio Berlusconi - who is often accused of having failed his promise of a "liberal revolution in Italy" - especially in the battleground region of Lombardy, "Italy's Ohio". "Berlusconi is clearly worried that we will make him lose all of northern Italy," Giannino said during a campaign stop this month.

But a fresh scandal could taint Giannino's prospects. While he pledged to clean up nepotism and corruption, he was been caught fabricating his own CV by padding it out with false qualifications. He resigned from the presidency of the party but is still running for prime minister.

Key words and slogans "Shut up, you miserable wretch!" Giannino's rant against an old university dean, who is running for Monti's party.

Who will vote for them? Businessmen, academics and young people with conservative and very liberal ideals.

READ: Italy at the Polls: Elections Live Blog