The incumbent: Paolo Gentiloni
Party: Democratic Party (PD)
Role: Prime Minister of Italy since December 2016
Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
The main thing you need to know about Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s centre-left prime minister, is that he’s (probably) on his way out. A former cabinet minister who was thrust into the top spot after the resignation of his predecessor (more on that below), Gentiloni has been in office for little over a year and isn’t running for another term. That’s despite the fact that he’s actually quite popular, his level-headed leadership having won him a higher approval rating than any of the 2018 candidates.
Because of his popularity, if no workable government can be formed after March 4th, there's a possibility Gentiloni will be asked to stay on until new elections can be held. Even Silvio Berlusconi, head of a rival party, has suggested that this should happen.
The comeback kid: Matteo Renzi
Party: Democratic Party (PD)
Position: Centre-left, neoliberal
Role: currently, Democratic Party leader and candidate; formerly, prime minister of Italy, 2014-2016
Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
This is Matteo Renzi’s second shot at governing: he managed it once before, in 2014, when at 39 he became Italy’s youngest ever PM after a power grab that saw his predecessor booted out. Dynamic, ambitious and media-savvy, he was determined to make his mark with reforms to everything from employment law to tax codes to public administration – but his attempts to revamp Italy’s electoral law proved a change too far. The man nicknamed “il Rottamatore” (“Demolition Man”) resigned at the end of 2016 after voters rejected his proposals for constitutional reform.
It was clear that Renzi considered his business unfinished and he quickly began positioning himself for a 2018 run. He’s a divisive figure, however, and a triumphant return is by no means guaranteed: those on the right say he failed to deliver the economic turnaround he promised and blame his policies for the continuing arrival of migrants, while many on the left think he’s too close to the centre and risks splitting the PD and its traditional allies.
It’s fair to say that Renzi has lost some of his shine since he was an untested 39-year-old: the polls suggest that he is about to steer his party to its worst performance yet. And even if the Democrats are shored up by the support of coalition partners, Renzi would still face an uphill battle to convince them he should be PM again.
IN PICTURES: The defining moments of Renzi's time as PM
The new kid on the block: Luigi Di Maio
Party: Five Star Movement (M5S)
Position: Anti-establishment, populist
Role: M5S candidate for prime minister
Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP
If Renzi made history at 39, Luigi Di Maio stands to blow his record out of the water. At just 31 years old, if Di Maio is elected he’ll be one of the youngest heads of state anywhere in the world. Young as he is, Di Maio is the leader taking the upstart Five Star Movement into its “adult phase”, in the words of its co-founder, ex-comedian and firebrand Beppe Grillo – giving it its best shot at real power since it was started in 2009.
Naples-born Di Maio joined the party as a young activist, got himself elected to represent his native Campania in the Chamber of Deputies and became vice-president of Italy’s lower house at the tender age of 26. He’s sharp-suited, good behind a microphone and crucially, not Grillo, who divides opinion even among M5S followers.
Less radical than the M5S co-founder, Di Maio has softened the movement’s opposition to Europe and the euro while making promises – new immigration policies, fewer compulsory vaccines, scrapping unnecessary bureaucracy – calculated to sound good to disillusioned voters of all stripes.
So far they seem to be resonating: the M5S is consistently polling higher than any other single party. The real question is how far Di Maio is willing to bend to get elected. Refusing to make deals with other parties has been a central tenet of the M5S from the start, but without coalition partners, Di Maio might never get the chance to govern.
The boomerang: Silvio Berlusconi
Party: Forza Italia (“Go Italy”)
Role: currently, Forza Italia party leader but not a candidate; formerly, prime minister of Italy, 1994-5, 2001-6, 2008-11
Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
At the other end of the age scale is Italy’s most influential octogenarian, Silvio Berlusconi. The former prime minister, 81, isn’t running for office yet again: a conviction for tax fraud currently excludes him from doing so (he is seeking to have the ban overturned, though a decision won’t come in time for this election). Yet despite the tax issues, sex scandals and less-than-illustrious track record in power, he’s set on playing a crucial role as head of Forza Italia and senior partner in what has strong chances of being the winning coalition.
Berlusconi’s is the biggest party in a three-way conservative alliance between Forza Italia, the Northern League and Brothers of Italy. Both of the smaller parties are to the right of Forza Italia, which leaves Berlusconi the task of selling his partners to moderate voters. He’s been known to put words into their mouths – assuring, for example, that the League no longer wants to take Italy out of the euro, only to be contradicted later – but how much control he really exercises remains to be seen.
Nor is it clear who would be prime minister if Berlusconi’s coalition won. Whoever it might be, they’d have to get Berlusconi’s approval: he has made it clear he plans to be the kingmaker in Italy’s election. Will Italian voters let him? Stranger things have happened.
The former protégée: Georgia Meloni
Party: Brothers of Italy (FdI)
Position: Conservative, nationalist, eurosceptic
Role: FdI party leader and candidate for prime minister
Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
Giorgia Meloni is a natural ally for Berlusconi; after all, he was the one who gave her her biggest job to date. Meloni served as minister for youth policy under Berlusconi from 2008-11 and was considered something of a protégée – until she split with him in 2012 to form a separate conservative movement.
The resulting Brothers of Italy – its name is taken from the first line of the national anthem – rose from the ashes of groups formed by ex-supporters of the Fascist Party. The Brothers aren’t exactly neo-fascists, but until now they remained a small party significantly to the right of the political mainstream, opposing the EU, euro and migration and advocating law, order and “traditional family values”.
Within Berlusconi’s bloc, Meloni is the most junior of the three members. But as a former youth activist and journalist who’s fought her fair share of political battles – including running for mayor of Rome while pregnant, and losing – the most prominent female candidate in the race has made herself a strident presence on the campaign trail. Her vision of Italy’s next government? Berlusconi as minister of the economy, Matteo Salvini of the Northern League as interior minister, and herself as premier.
The rising right: Matteo Salvini
Party: Northern League (LN)
Position: Far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigration, populist
Role: LN leader and candidate for prime minister
Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
Matteo Salvini is part of a new generation of far-right leaders gaining prominence across Europe, including Marine Le Pen of France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. Like Le Pen, he’s served as an anti-Europe member of the European Parliament and also like her, he took over a marginal far-right movement with aims to take it into the mainstream.
For Salvini, that involved a major rebrand: abandoning the party’s original hopes of breaking northern Italy off from the south, stopping the trash-talk about southern Italians and directing it instead at the centre-left government, Brussels, the single currency and the migrants arriving on Italy’s southern shores. For this campaign the party even dropped the “Northern” from its name, running as simply “the League”.
Their 2018 slogan is “Salvini for Premier”, which gives a measure of the man’s ambitions. Having grown the League’s support from single to double figures, he’s counting his party winning its highest share of the vote yet – and he isn’t afraid to disagree with Berlusconi, despite wielding less clout. Salvini’s anti-immigrant, anti-Islam rhetoric has set the tone for a campaign dominated by populism and outright xenophobia. Whatever happens on March 4th, Salvini has succeeded in making himself a household name well beyond the borders of his northern heartland.
The mediator: Sergio Mattarella
Role: President of Italy since 2015
Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
The final name you need to know is Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s head of state and the man responsible for dissolving and recalling parliament, setting an election date and appointing the next prime minister. He could find himself playing a key role if the vote results, as polls suggest it will do, in deadlock.
In that case it will be Mattarella’s job to supervise coalition talks and encourage parties to come up with a workable government as quickly as possible. If that doesn’t work, he can call new elections and keep the current government in place until then. In any scenario, Matterella is charged with ensuring that the constitution is respected and Italy remains (as) united (as possible).
READ ALSO: An introduction to Italy's political system