Italy will go to the polls on 9 April to elect a new parliament, government and prime minister. The date only became official at the end of January but in practice it was almost as predictable as an American election. Still, as nothing is ever certain in Italian politics, a little suspense was inevitable. It is the presidents prerogative to dissolve parliament and call elections and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi made it clear that he was going to do this at the end of January. But prime minister Silvio Berlusconi wanted as much media time as possible before the equal time provisions for all parties came into force. Therefore he argued that his government still had some unfinished business and managed to wheedle a fortnights reprieve on the dissolution of parliament. Given the state of Italys economy and the controversies of the Berlusconi government, this should be a hard-fought and tightly debated campaign but until now there has been more talk on form than substance.

As predictable as the date is the line-up: Berlusconi on the right against his 1996 opponent, Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission, on the left. There were discussions on both sides that maybe it was time for a change of leaders. Over the last year there have been sallies, or rather feints, by future hopefuls for a post-Berlusconi age. On one side there have been the centrist Pierferdinando Casini and right-wing Alleanza Nazionale leader Gianfranco Fini; on the other the centre-lefts leader in 2001, Francesco Rutelli. But like the heated debate over when to vote, the leadership struggles have been largely hot air.

Officially, the party lists will be fixed in March but once again, most of the jockeying for position has already been done. A majority of politicians declare themselves in favour of a single party on the left or right, but no-one is prepared to give up either parties or positions at present. In any case there is a new electoral system which takes Italy back to a proportional vote; the new law should discourage the very small parties but does not penalise the medium-sized ones.

The centre-right coalition Casa delle Libert looks much as it did five years ago, albeit with signs of wear and tear. In the centre of the alliance is Berlusconis own Forza Italia, which won 29.4 per cent of the vote in 2001; his allies on the right, Alleanza Nazionale and the Lega Nord, took 12 per cent and 3.9 per cent respectively while on his left the former Christian Democrats, CCD-CDU, took 3.2 per cent. Today the coalition still calls itself the Casa delle Libert, and Forza Italia, Alleanza Nazionale and the Lega Nord all still have the same names and leaders as five years ago, although the Legas Umberto Bossi suffered a serious stroke in 2004 and no longer takes an active part in politics. The CCD-CDU is now called the Unione dei Democratici Cristiani (UDC) and has gone through various leadership crises. Because of its heritage of covering both sides of the political divide, it suffered the doubts of all fence-sitters, especially as the legislature proceeded. Its leaders include Marco Follini, who has been highly critical of Berlusconi on various occasions; Casini who, after five years as the quasi-neutral president of the chamber of deputies, has launched himself back into party politics with a slew of six-by-three-metre posters across the country; and Rocco Buttiglione, the intransigently Catholic philosophy professor and minister for culture.

On the left there is also some consistency, but there are also some opportunists who jumped to the left from what seemed to be a sinking ship on the right. The coalition is referred to as LUnione, which sometimes causes confusion as its leader, Prodi, was president of the Commission of the European Union. The biggest parties in LUnione are still the Democratici di Sinistra (DS), which won 16.6 per cent of the vote in 2001 and is still led by Piero Fassino, with Massimo DAlema never far in the background, and the Margherita, which took 14.5 per cent of the vote five years ago and is still led by Francesco Rutelli with former Christian Democrat Pierluigi Castagnetti as a close second. Rifondazione Comunista took five per cent in 2001 and still has Fausto Bertinotti as its leader. I Verdi and Comunisti Italiani complete the former line-up.

The rest of LUnione is made up of transfers mostly from the other side. Antonio Di Pietros Italia dei Valori will almost certainly take part in LUnione, where before he stood alone. No one has ever doubted Di Pietros position as a mastiff magistrate and one of his colleagues in the 1990s Clean Hands anti-corruption investigation, Gerardo DAmbrosio, will be standing in the DS list. Curiously though, the remains of the Partito Socialista, including Bobo Craxi, will also be part of LUnione. Craxis father, Bettino, was leader of the old Partito Socialista and was convicted of corruption. Bobo Craxi and another son of an illustrious politician, Giorgio La Malfa, were firmly on the centre-right at the last election but as the polls became more and more dire they moved over to the centre-left, as did hundreds of city councillors. The heirs of the Partito Radicale, now called the Rosa nel Pugno, have also switched: Marco Panella and Emma Bonino seem to have gone back to their left-wing origins.

Although the official campaign has only just begun, the majority of Italians are punch-drunk on what has in practice been a constant campaign for the last five years, and certainly for the last year. They are going to vote in six weeks time, but the serious issues have not been addressed: the economy above all, employment, investment and welfare; but also foreign policy towards the EU and the United States, immigration and schools. Instead January and February were full of discussions about Berlusconis omnipresence on television; how could equal access to the media be guaranteed, and indeed should it be.

This is crunch time for Berlusconi, who has been a symbol of Italian politics for more than a decade and especially for the five years he has been in power. The polls suggest that he does not have much chance of winning this election but he has been fighting hard and should not be dismissed yet. If he were to win, it would be an exceptional demonstration that Italy is still not a normal country with straightforward politicians. If he loses, then it will be the end of an extraordinary period. Either way, these should be fascinating times for Italians and for the rest of the watching world.

But somehow after five years of high tones and high tensions, the build-up to the elections has been an anti-climax. The next six weeks will be different.

The ones to watch

To the rightCasa delle Libert

Silvio Berlusconi (Forza Italia). Party leader and prime minister since 2001, now up for re-election.

Gianfranco Fini (AN). Party leader of Alleanza Nazionale, deputy prime minister and foreign minister who has successfully led his party away from its far-right fascist past.

Pierferdinando Casini (UDC). President of the chamber of deputies who has his eye on the presidency of the republic.

Marco Follini (UDC). Former party leader and once vice prime minister in a Berlusconi government.

Rocco Buttiglione (UDC). Catholic intransigent whose nomination as member of the European Commission in charge of justice, freedom and security was withdrawn after he expressed negative views on homosexuality and immigration.

Umberto Bossi (Lega Nord). Party leader whose ill-health has caused him to distance himself from taking an active political role, although the weight of his opinions is still felt.

To the leftLUnione

Romano Prodi. Head of LUnione alliance on the centre-left, Prodi is a Catholic economist and former Italian prime minister (1996-1998) from Bologna who headed the European Commission (1999-2004).

Piero Fassino (DS). Lacklustre leader of Democratici di Sinistra, the biggest party on the left.

Massimo DAlema (DS). Former party leader and former prime minister.

Francesco Rutelli (Margherita). Party leader and once charismatic and popular mayor of Rome who has fared less well in national politics.

Fausto Bertinotti (Rifondazione Comunista). Party leader and unreformed communist with a small but loyal following.

Antonio di Pietro (Italia dei Valori). Party leader, member of European parliament (MEP) and leading magistrate in the Clean Hands anti-corruption campaign of the mid 1990s.

Marco Pannella (Rosa nel Pugno). MEP and civil rights campaigner who shifts from right to left depending on the cause.

Emma Bonino (Rosa Nel Pugno). MEP, human rights campaigner and European Union Commissioner for humanitarian aid in the late 1990s.