1. The timeline
The date has not yet been formally announced, but according to Italy's two biggest dailies, Repubblica and Corriere, March 4th is the expected date and has been agreed on by the country's main parties. Reuters cited a parliamentary source as saying that March 11th was another possible date and that a final decision was due shortly.
Those are both Sundays, as is usual in Italy, to allow the largest proportion of eligible voters to cast their ballots.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella, the man whose job it will be to call the next election. Photo: Jussi Nukari / Lehtikuva / AFP
And this timing means that parliament will be dissolved at some point between Christmas and New Year, most likely on December 28th after current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni holds an end-of-year conference. Gentiloni will, however, stay on as PM until a new government is formed.
Under Italian law, the election must be held before May 20th, but most of the country's parties have been pushing to hold them as soon as possible.
2. An untested electoral law
There's a good reason elections haven't been held already, and it also explains why this election is particularly unpredictable. It's all to do with Italy's new electoral law.
Paolo Gentiloni was described as a 'caretaker' prime minister when he took over the top job last year, but this week he completed a year in the job. He replaced party colleague Matteo Renzi, who resigned after staking his job on a set of constitutional reforms which were rejected in a humiliating national referendum.
This wasn't just a problem for Renzi, but for the country's political system.
Renzi is pictured during a press conference. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The suggested reforms would have ironed out differences in the electoral systems for Italy's upper and lower houses of parliament. But the proposals faced criticism from several quarters as being too drastic, and some saw the vote as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the political establishment as a whole, and so when they were rejected, Italy was left with no workable electoral law.
After months of debate, a new election law named 'Rosatellum' was finally passed in late October, despite fierce opposition from the Five Star Movement (M5S). One crucial feature of the new law is that it favours parties which build alliances, something the M5S has ruled out doing. The party has accused the new law of being "rigged" against it.
Because this law is brand new for Italy, predictions are even tougher than usual -- and it could lead to some surprises.
3. How do the polls look?
With several months to go, the M5S looks on track to be the most popular party.
In the graph below, which tracks opinion polls from 2013 to autumn 2017, the Democratic Party is marked in red, the M5S in yellow, Berlusconi's Forza Italia in light blue, and the Northern League in green. The other colours represent Italy's smaller parties, which could prove decisive when it comes to forming coalitions or a government.
Graph: FrBailo/Wikimedia Commons
As well as opinion polls, regional and local elections in recent months have served as a barometer of public mood.
A centre-right, Berlusconi-backed candidate scooped just under 40 percent of the vote in Sicily's regional elections in November, while the Democratic Party candidate polled just 18.6 percent. But turnout was low, with fewer than half of the eligible voters casting their ballots.
And when ten million Italians had the chance to go to the polls in regional elections across the country in June, the centre-right were again the biggest winners, while the Democratic Party lost control of several longtime left-wing strongholds. But the M5S also failed to do as well as predicted, and again turnout was low, suggesting that protest voters may have chosen to stay home rather than back the anti-establishment party.
4. The overall outcome is anyone's guess
Because of the way the electoral law favours coalitions, and the fact that no party looks set to receive 40 percent of votes outright, it's extremely tough to predict who will be ruling Italy this time next year.
Economic analyst Lorenzo Codogno said it was almost a "certainty [that] no one is going to win an outright majority in parliament".
While the M5S is currently leading the polls, its refusal to join a coalition with any of the traditional parties means it is almost impossible that it would be able to form a government. Meanwhile, the ruling centre-left is seriously divided.
A centre-right victory would be a huge boost for ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi, pictured at a rally. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The one coalition which could reach an outright victory alone -- requiring 40 percent of the total vote -- is the centre-right, led by four-time PM Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi is currently barred from public office as a result of a conviction for tax fraud which saw him kicked out of parliament in 2013, but he is hoping to have the ban lifted.
There's another option, and Codogno says: "A Grand Coalition, especially with injections of technocrat/institutional people, would probably be well received by financial markets."
5. Risks and factors to look out for
With the M5S in the lead and the party's reputation as an anti-EU party, it's likely that global media will debate the possibility of an 'Italexit' or Italy quitting the euro. It's possible that the M5S could form a government with the Northern League or another party, however Codogno described this possibility, and that of Italexit or the introduction of a paralllel currency, as being "very slim".
What's more, the M5S has increasingly softened its stance on the EU and euro, with the party's new leader recently stressing: "We want to stay in the EU."
Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP
The biggest risk facing Italy is further instability, or in other words, no government being formed and another election held later next year.
Employers' organization Confindustria said on Wednesday that instability could threaten Italy's economic recovery and warned political parties not to use "demagogic measures", saying the election was "very important".