Silvio Berlusconi may be 85 but his political ambitions are far from over
Silvio Berlusconi may be 85 but his political ambitions are far from over

Three former heads of government and two far-right leaders: here in alphabetical order are the five main candidates in Italy's general election on Sunday.

A three-time prime minister who owns a media empire and Serie A football club, Berlusconi may be 85 but his political ambitions are far from over.

His right-wing Forza Italia party is polling at just eight percent but has joined forces with the far-right Brothers of Italy and anti-immigration League.

Should the alliance win, billionaire Berlusconi has hopes of snapping up the second highest-ranking office in the country: president of the Senate.

A last pitch for power after his bid to become Italy's president failed in January, the Senate job would be prestigious -- and provide judicial immunity, no small matter for a man currently on trial accused of paying starlets to keep quiet about his notorious parties.

Lawyer Conte had never been elected to office when he was asked to lead Italy's government following the populist Five Star Movement's stunning victory in 2018 elections.

Dubbed "Mr Nobody" at first, Conte became seen by many terrified Italians as a safe pair of hands when Italy became the first European country to face the full force of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

He eventually secured for Italy the largest slice, around 200 billion euros ($194 billion), of the massive EU post-virus recovery fund.

Plagued by in-fighting, defections and the compromises needed to stay in power, Five Star lost a lot of support. But Conte, 58, remains a popular leader, particularly among the young.

Letta, 56, has long been a fixture in Italian politics, becoming the republic's youngest-ever minister in 1998, at 32, before rising to become premier in 2013 -- only to be forced out within a year.

The restrained, bespectacled expert in international law has warned the prospect of a far-right victory threatens democracy and Italy's place in the post-war order, from the European Union to NATO.

Opinion polls suggest his Democratic Party, which has allied with the ecological far-left, has almost no chance of beating the far-right alliance.

But Letta, who is campaigning on a platform of social justice, the environment and civil rights, is pinning his hopes on the substantial minority of voters who have yet to decide.

Leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, Meloni has gone from being a teenage activist who praised Mussolini to the favourite to become Italy's first woman prime minister.

In 2018 general elections, her party secured just four percent of the vote, but is now polling at more than 24 percent after a nationalist campaign centred around defending Italy's interests and protecting traditional Catholic family values.

Meloni has benefited from being the only party in opposition for the past 18 months, after choosing not to join outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi's national unity government.

Her stance on Europe has softened over the years -- she no longer wants Italy to leave the EU's single currency, and has strongly backed the bloc's sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war.

But she says Rome must stand up more for its national interests and has backed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in his battles with Brussels.

Salvini, 49, is credited with turning his once regional League party into a national force thanks to his eurosceptic, "Italians First" platform.

He has been in and out of government since the last general election in 2018, joining the populist Five Star Movement and later, Prime Minister Mario Draghi's national unity coalition.

Salvini was just 17 when he joined the then-Northern League. After rising through the ranks, he shifted its attention onto the EU, the euro and the tens of thousands of migrants arriving on Italy's shores yearly from north Africa.

But he has since been eclipsed by the more polished Giorgia Meloni.

The war in Ukraine has also put him in a tight spot, sparking fresh scrutiny of his ties to Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin he has long admired, even wearing T-shirts bearing Putin's face.

Giuseppe Conte secured for Italy the largest slice of the massive EU post-virus recovery fund
Giuseppe Conte secured for Italy the largest slice of the massive EU post-virus recovery fund
Enrico Letta has long been a fixture in Italian politics
Enrico Letta has long been a fixture in Italian politics
Giorgia Meloni praised Mussolini as a teenage activist
Giorgia Meloni praised Mussolini as a teenage activist
Matteo Salvini is credited with turning his once regional League party into a national force
Matteo Salvini is credited with turning his once regional League party into a national force