He's been convicted of tax fraud and is charged with paying for sex. But despite the protests Silvio Berlusconi could lead his conservative coalition back into power, writes Felicity Spector.
Italy has not had an elected leader since November 2011 - and the last available survey shows almost a third of Italians still had not made up their minds who should become their new prime minister.
It's not an easy choice. On the left, and slightly in the lead, the centre left, led by the distinctly lacklustre, almost charisma-free Pier-Luigi Bersani, whose rambling speeches have left people somewhat bewildered rather than inspired.
In the centre, the former technocrat-turned-prime minister Mario Monti, who has been widely blamed for bringing in the unpopular austerity cuts.
And on the right - the politician for whom every day is Groundhog day, Silvio Berlusconi, a convicted fraudster facing sex charges who nonetheless stands a good chance of returning to power, at the head of a conservative coalition.
And as he went to vote in Milan, AFP reports that three topless feminist protestors hurled themselves at him, shouting "Basta Berlusconi!" before being hustled away by police.
The fraudster, the technocrat, the charisma vacuum or the comic.
Faced with such a line-up, it is perhaps not surprising that a comedian best known for his screaming tirades with a four-letter word message to the establishment has managed to command some 15 per cent in the polls.
Beppe Grillo, master of social media, whose blog www.beppegrillo.it has the biggest following of any political site, has amassed a cult-like following: his final rally in Rome, where he railed against corrupt politicians and bankers, drew an estimated half-million strong crowd.
Grillo himself is not running for a seat and insists his Five Star Movement will never enter a coalition with either of the main political parties. Which makes it all the more likely that Berlusconi's Freedom People, together with the Northern League, could cobble together some kind of wider alliance.
It is all a far cry from 1994, when I first went to Rome to meet Berlusconi, who had just set up his Forza Italia movement to campaign against corruption and the institutional inertia of the parties which had ruled Italy between themselves for the best part of half a century.
Back then, the media mogul was swept along on a tide of enthusiasm: the old order badly discredited by the Tangentopoli, or "Bribesville" scandal, which exposed the links between organised crime and the country's political elite.
A group of brave, crusading magistrates, known as the mani puliti or clean hands, managed to bring dozens of mafia leaders and high ranking politicians to justice. Berlusconi was all in favour, until they began looking into his affairs.
Embarrassment of riches
In those days, Forza Italia was brand shiny new: the jaunty theme tune played from loudspeakers in the supermarkets owned by Berlusconi, in the hotels which his company ran, on the television stations which he controlled.
Party gatherings dripped with glamour: fur coats were de rigeur, and I saw one supporter with diamonds set into her teeth. Berlusconi, when we met him, was surrounded by minders and minions, who insisted we put a silk stocking over the camera lens for the interview, so his features would not appear too harsh.
One of the world's richest men, his team built a mini television studio in an outbuilding on his Arcore estate, just for our interview: we saw them taking it down as we left. That, of course, was as nothing compared to the extravagant mausoleum on one of his properties, and the remote controlled volcano at his beach house in Sardinia.
Now, battered by scandal, the 76-year-old tycoon has lost some of his vigour: he has bewildered crowds at some of his rallies with rambling thoughts and misfired gaffes. And yet, he knows his demographic.
Supporters have been won over by a succession of promises, not least a pledge to repay a hated property tax, and free private schools for all children. Some sceptics claim that the decision to sign Mario Balotelli to his AC Milan club was no accident: his first game is today - and it could net Berlusconi tens of thousands of extra votes.
The financial establishment is terrified of the prospect of a new Berlusconi administration, given the depth of the country's economic crisis. After all, this is the man who as prime minister ran up billions of euro in debt and on the brink of seeking a European bailout.
When Italy defaulted on its loans, Berlusconi was forced to resign. But today it seems that Mario Monti, whose steep spending cuts were the only alternative to such a prospect, who is saddled with all the blame.
Italians have two days to cast their votes: officials have urged them to turn out. With opinion polling banned in the final hours - it's all down to that 28 per cent who have been struggling to make up their minds.
The fraudster, the technocrat, the charisma vacuum or the comic: even for the preternaturally turbulent world of Italian politics, it's an unenviable choice.
23 February 2013