One region looms large over Italy's upcoming election: Lombardy.
The nation's industrial powerhouse and home to its financial capital, Milan, the region generates a fifth of Italy's wealth and boasts one-sixth of its population. The way Lombardy goes will likely determine whether the eurozone's third-largest economy gets the stable government it needs to take strong action against its economic crisis.
It's not for nothing that Lombardy is being dubbed by the media "Italy's Ohio" — for the U.S. state that has historically helped swing American presidential elections.
Until recently, Lombardy's choice has been taken for granted. It's where billionaire businessman and former premier Silvio Berlusconi has his home base. And it's where Berlusconi's on-again, off-again allies, the populist Northern League, draw some of their strongest support. Together, the two forces have all but swept the Lombardy sweepstakes in recent elections.
Things are different this time around.
Polls show that the center-right coalition led by Berlusconi and the center-left forces backing Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani's bid for premier are neck-and-neck in Lombardy.
The Bersani camp has made its surprising inroads due largely to Berlusconi's ongoing legal woes, including a trial on a charge of paying for sex with an underage teen, and his decision to team up again with the anti-Europe Northern League.
The wild-card in the Lombardy race is former Milan Mayor Gabriele Albertini. He defected from Berlusconi's People of Liberty Party and aligned himself with Premier Mario Monti's centrist forces, bolstering the reformist leader's chances of taking a powerful role in the next government — although Monti's own chance of victory is slim.
With Bersani leading in national polls for control of the lower house in the Feb. 24-25 vote, most eyes are on the race for the Senate. While winning the lower house could put Bersani in the driver's seat to form a government, no coalition will be able to rule effectively without control of the Senate.
Lombardy delivers 49 of the Senate's 315 seats, significantly more than any other region — giving it an outsized role in the outcome of the election. With undecided voters running around 30 percent, there is still a lot of room to woo support.
Albertini is important because he could siphon votes away from Berlusconi and the Northern League. This could boost the chances of pro-Monti forces to help Bersani create a stable Senate majority. There's also an outside chance that moderate forces from left and right might rally around Monti to give him another stint as premier. If, however, the Berlusconi camp triumphs in the Senate, Italy can expect a burst of political chaos, with a hung Parliament just as it needs bold action to attack its economic woes.
In Lombardy, Berlusconi is entering another marriage of convenience with the raucous, anti-immigrant Northern League. The League has propped up Berlusconi in the past, but their squabbles have also dragged down the media mogul's governments and created an ugly spectacle that has hurt international confidence in Italy.
Many in Lombardy's center-right are horrified by Berlusconi's renewed alliance with the League. Among them is Albertini, a former industrialist who broke with Berlusconi in protest over his deal with the League, causing him to embrace Monti's economic reform drive and more moderate political tone.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Albertini criticized Berlusconi for adopting "demagogic and populist language" including a promise to scrap an unpopular property tax, and rants about German domination and a purported conspiracy to make Italy pay more to borrow money. He has also slammed Berlusconi's attempts at a political comeback, which comes a year after being forced from office amid a loss of faith in his ability to manage Italy's debt crisis, and legal woes that include corruption charges and the underage prostitution scandal.
Albertini, 62, is backing Monti's campaign to introduce a reform culture to Italian politics, engage more deeply with Europe and re-align centrist forces, once gathered around the old Christian Democratic Party that was wiped out in the bribery scandals of the early 1990s.
"Our bet is that we are facing a moment of political transition," Albertini said. "And that the leadership of Premier Mario Monti becomes the transition toward another scenario, different from one that sees the opposition positions of two irreconcilable worlds, both damaging to our country."