All eyes are trying to focus on that date some time in April or early May next year when Italians will elect a new parliament. Every politicians most frivolous utterance or action is aimed at squeezing the last drop of electoral support from the voters and away from the other side.

At the moment, Romano Prodis Unione, the centre-left coalition, seems to be an easy bet for victory, with independent opinion polls giving them as much as a 10 per cent lead. The economy is stagnant, unemployment has not fallen and prices have risen. The prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and his Casa delle Libert alliance should not have a chance of winning. But as Septembers German elections showed, a big early lead in the polls does not necessarily translate into a guaranteed working majority.

Over and above specific differences on issues, it will be the internal divisions in the centre-left and centre-right coalitions that will give victory to one side or the other in Italy. And before the parties and leaders start on the real election campaign some time in February, there are a number of hurdles they will have to jump, which have a real potential to divide the alliances.

The first hurdle concerns who is going to lead each side; this should not be a serious issue but it still produces much steam. On the centre-right, there is no real question that Berlusconi will lead the coalition in the elections next year but there is every doubt as to who will take his place when the 69-year-old leader stands down and this, together with the prospect of defeat next year, means that pretenders to the throne are already showing their claws.

On the other side, it seems clear that Prodi will be the leader and prospective prime minister of a centre-left coalition but, as he was stabbed in the back by his own supporters in 1998, he wants to be reasonably sure that this wont happen again. So last year the idea was launched to have something similar to American-type primary contests to elect the leader of the coalition. This would give the prime ministerial candidate a legitimacy that a party caucus could never grant. However, the big parties found they couldnt control the system so the idea was dropped. Then earlier this year there was a row between Prodi and the leader of the centre-left Margherita party, Francesco Rutelli, so Prodi found himself without a party and again in need of legitimisation.

New rules were drawn up and in the last few weeks he and half a dozen other candidates have been fighting for the support of all the centre-left voters who feel committed enough to turn out for the primary elections on Sunday 16 October. Prodis rivals include the leader of Rifondazione Comunista, Fausto Bertinotti, the former anti-corruption magistrate, Antonio Di Pietro, now leader of his own party, LItalia dei Valori, and the secretary of the Verdi, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio.

If Prodi wins the majority, as he and everyone else expect, hell face the next step: drawing up a programme to which the coalition can commit itself for the duration of parliament. That is due to happen before Christmas.

Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, the centre-right parties hope their opponents will present a sufficiently divided front to allow them to stay in power. But in case this does not happen, they have put forward a proposal for a new electoral system, similar to the old proportional representation system that was voted out in a referendum in 1993. This would almost certainly guarantee the centre-right victory. There is little chance of it passing (the centre-left promised more than 500 amendments when the bill was published) but it provides an issue for the professional commentators to get their teeth into.

Far more serious for both sides, and crucial for Berlusconi, is the budget, which should be passed by the end of the year. This is the last one before the election and normally pre-election budgets are generous to a fault, giving to all and taking from (almost) no one. However, given Italys growing deficit, serious pension shortfalls and calls for fiscal rigour from the European Commission, no one can expect tax cuts. Berlusconi will have to square many circles and the debate will be heated.

The budget will affect everyone sooner or later, but an issue that is of interest to a minority only is already colouring the campaign and it might even become critical if the elections are close. After much pushing from the left and from gay-rights activists, Prodi has finally declared himself in favour of civil unions; most of his own side support the idea but a few (with a nod to the Vatican) deplore it. There are similar divisions on the centre-right and, as Church support was essential in both the 1996 and 2001 elections, the issue of civil unions will get its share of discussion.

Finally, there is the question of the war in Iraq and the possibility of a terrorist attack in Italy. Both the right and the left say they want to bring the soldiers home and to protect the country, but they have very different views on how to achieve this goal, which will change even more should Italy be targeted.

Anyone who is eligible to vote in Italy and who wants to cast a ballot in the primaries for the centre-left candidates has to pay a minimum of e1 (to the Unione), produce an electoral certificate and sign a declaration in support for the Unione. It is still not certain where the voting will be; probably in squares, in party sections, theatres, cinemas, hospitals and prisons, as well as some private schools. For more information see www.unioneweb.it.

When electors go to the polls on Sunday 16 October they will find two unfamiliar names on the ballot paper. Number 3 on the ballot paper is Ivan Scalfarotto, a 40 year old from Foggia in Puglia, with a degree in law from the University of Naples, and number 4 is Simona Panzino.

Before taking his degree, Scalfarotto was a councillor for the Verdi in his hometown but he gave up political activity when he was offered work in the north of Italy. He has retained a passion for politics ever since.

Working in human resources for various banks, Scalfarotto has lived in several Italian cities and in 1998 he was made head of personnel for Citibank in Italy. In 2001 he and some friends founded Adopt the constitution a movement to encourage the Italians to defend their constitution. Since 2002, Scalfarotto has lived in London where he is head of human resources for Citygroup.

Disappointed with the present Italian government, Scalfarotto and some similar-minded friends founded a group Libert e Giustizia for Italians living in London and he is now a candidate in the primary elections to select the leader of the Unione. His electoral programme calls for the modernisation of the economy, an independent lay state, full collaboration with other countries in the European Union, world peace and a fair international economic system aiding development in the worlds poorest countries. (www.ivanscalfarotto.info).

Panzino, a 34-year-old from Catanzaro in Calabria has lived in Rome for 12 years. She has a degree in literature with a specialisation in radio and television communications, and is a member of Action a group that fights for the homeless. She lives in a squat in the S. Lorenzo area of the city. Having worked in a call centre, a bar and as a cleaner, Panzino claims that she is just a figure who represents thousands of nameless Italians who live in precarious conditions with no secure home or job. Panzinos electoral programme calls for an amnesty for all those in Italian prisons who are there because they have attempted to help the oppressed, for the possession of marijuana or for being in Italy illegally with no permit. She calls for the closure of the temporary camps for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and of course secure homes for all. (www.senzavolto.org).

A candidate in the primaries has to be an Italian citizen with the right to vote at a general election. He or she has to present at least 10,000 signatures; 1,000 from 10 different regions where there are at least one million residents, or 500 signatures from a region with fewer residents. Every signatory must have the right to vote at an Italian general election. Residence abroad does not exclude one from being a candidate.

Sarah McLean