Italys political left is once again looking for a leader as a difficult referendum on article 18 of the countrys labour laws looms this spring. Should article 18s job protection conditions be extended to companies with less than 15 employees or not? An internecine debate is already raging on the left, but if its potential leaders do not bury their personal and ideological differences Silvio Berlusconis government will soon have even less opposition than it does at present. The personalities below are listed in alphabetical order.

Fausto Bertinotti has been the leader of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista since 1994.

His position is one of opposition always and of antagonism towards both the centre-right and the centre-left. His unwillingness to co-operate with the centre-left government led by Romano Prodi caused its fall in 1998, and his non-alliance with the centre-left Ulivo coalition greatly contributed to Berlusconis general election victory in May 2001. His individualism is so strong that after those elections he didnt seem to mind about the centre-left defeat because his own party had polled five per cent of the vote.

Together with the Federazione dei Verdi he is currently promoting the referendum on article 18 of the labour laws to extend workers rights. He is again seriously splitting the left as most of its parties have declared themselves against the referendum.

He is supported by parts of the working class, the social centres and the no-global movement. He is strongly against war and globalisation.

Sergio Cofferati. The former leader of Italys largest trade union confederation, CGIL, Cofferati is a softly-spoken, bearded opera buff whose hard-line negotiating tactics led prime minister Berlusconi to dub him Signor No.

As head of CGIL (1994-2002) his finest moment was rallying more than a million people in Rome last year in protest at Berlusconis proposed labour law reforms. Held despite the reservations of many of his colleagues, the demonstration was seen as a personal victory for Cofferati and saw him hailed as the new saviour of the left.

An engineer who joined Pirelli in 1969, he continues to work for the company and is said to remain close to the union movements grassroots. Nicknamed the Chinese for his slanted eyes, Cofferati has become known among his opponents as Genghis Khan. However, he remains completely untested on the political stage and has no party experience.

Massimo DAlema was largely responsible for the successful transformation of the old Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) into the social democratic party that it is today. In 1994 he was elected secretary of the new Partito Democratico di Sinistra (PDS) that grew out of the PCI and he then became the first Italian politician with a communist past to head a government (1998-2000). After a poor result at the 2000 regional elections he went into the political wilderness.

He has recently been showing signs of a new enthusiasm for national politics. He is president of the Democratici di Sinistra (the revised version of the PDS) and a member of parliament for Puglia, and he still has considerable political clout. However, he is looked on as a traitor by die-hard communists and has never quite been trusted by the old guard social democrats to his right. His condescending manner does not go down well with the new generation on the left.

Piero Fassino has all the markings of an old school left-wing politician: he comes from a staunchly socialist Turin family and he started his career as an active member of the PCI, moving on to the PDS and then the DS, of which he is now secretary.

Fassino has proved reform-oriented in the positions he has held. He was an internationally respected minister of foreign trade in the DAlema government. In the following government led by Giuliano Amato (2000-2001) he was an outspoken justice minister, calling for electoral reform and the simplification of legal proceedings in Italy.

Fassino ran as candidate for deputy prime minister alongside Francesco Rutelli on the losing Ulivo ticket in 2001. Now, as leader of the DS, he is one of the strongest political figures of the Italian left. In response to speculation about him leading the centre-left coalition in the next election, Fassino stated last December that he thought Romano Prodi would be the best candidate to take on Berlusconi.

Romano Prodi. The European Commission president remains a heavyweight of the Italian left and could return to domestic politics after his European mandate ends in 2005.

A former Christian Democrat, he headed the centre-left Ulivo coalition when it was formed in 1995 and subsequently became prime minister, holding office 1996-1998. Italys entry into the single European currency was seen as one of his greatest achievements while at the helm.

A professor of economics, before entering politics Prodi twice served as chairman of the now dismembered state-owned Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI), piloting much of its initial privatisation and emerging unscathed from investigations into alleged corruption during his leadership.

A reformer, after his term as prime minister he founded the small Democratici party, which in 2000 joined with other small centre and centre-left parties to form the Margherita alliance (which went on to become a single party in March 2002). A devout Roman Catholic and a keen cyclist, the uncharismatic Prodi has been dubbed La Mortadella by his critics, a reference to the sausage made in his home town of Bologna, but he is still a force to be reckoned with.

Francesco Rutelli rose to fame as mayor of Rome (1993-2001) before becoming the unsuccessful leader of the Ulivo coalition that lost to Berlusconi in 2001. He was a forceful mayor, successfully implementing ambitious projects for the 2000 Jubilee, whose positive effects can still be felt in the city today.

Starting as a member of the Radicali Italiani in the 1980s, Rutelli resurfaced as an environmentalist in the early 1990s before joining up with the Democratici under Prodi. He now leads the Margherita.

Although Rutelli was one of the few politicians able to unite the centre-left forces in the 2001 electoral campaign he now lacks widespread political support. Disparaged as a political maverick by more idealistic voters, his moderate approach allows him to market himself as the candidate for a modern, young Italy.

Walter Veltroni. In the run-up to the mayoral elections in May 2001, which he won by a narrow majority, Veltroni made concern for the poor and needy a pillar of his campaign. As mayor, he has taken every opportunity to promote Rome as Citt della Pace. In a historic gesture last October he made Pope John Paul II an honorary citizen of Rome.

Under his administration the city social services department has stepped up its activities for the elderly and marginalised, while a new department for the periphery ensures that the many Romans who live outside the centre are not neglected. However, traffic has not improved and the city looks dirtier and shabbier than it did two years ago. Many of the major projects now being completed, such as the new music auditorium, were in fact initiated by Veltronis predecessor Rutelli.

Before becoming mayor of Rome, Veltroni served as deputy prime minister and as a high-profile minister of culture in the Prodi government and then as secretary of the DS (1998-2001). He was editor of the left-wing daily LUnit (1992-1996) and, although he is mayor of Rome, is an enthusiastic supporter of Turins football team Juventus. He is also passionate about jazz.

The major parties on the left, in approximate order of their electoral following: Democratici di Sinistra, Margherita, Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, Partito dei Comunisti Italiani, Federazione dei Verdi.