Two spoilers who could hold key to Italian elections

Italy's general election this weekend could hang on the few votes won by two distinct outsiders: one an eccentric journalist with a penchant for pink waistcoats, the other an unshaven former anti-mafia prosecutor.

The first is the elaborately moustachioed Oscar Giannino, whose radical free-market campaign is chipping away at support for Silvio Berlusconi and could determine whether the former prime minister wins in the battleground region of Lombardy.

The second is Antonio Ingroia, who has set up a party called "Civic Revolution" with traditionally leftist and anti-corruption slogans that are winning over voters disillusioned with the mainstream.

"We're the only real left-wing," the 53-year-old Ingroia said in one recent interview.

He said the prospect of an alliance between the Democratic Party and outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti would be "a mortal embrace".

"They accuse me of making the left lose but I ask: 'What left?'"

Ingroia's party is only polling at around 4.2 percent on a national level.

That would be just enough to scrape into the lower house of parliament but perhaps sufficient to make a more dramatic difference to the fate of the Democratic Party, which is the current election favourite.

Ingroia has called for the scrapping of Monti's pension reforms, for a minimum wage for young people and for an increase in child benefits.

He says he can fund his plans by fighting tax evasion and seizing what he says are 170 billion euros ($227 billion) in untouched criminal assets.

He has said that "moral" issues like "transparency, legality, the fight against the mafia and corruption" should be at the centre of the campaign.

He is also cautious on Europe's role in the economy.

"We are not anti--Europe but the problem is which Europe? The Europe of Monti and the banks or the Europe of the peoples and of rights," he said.

An even smaller party with a potentially major role is "Stop the Decline" led by the impish Giannino, who combines a passion for garish waistcoats with a serious economic platform.

The flamboyant Giannino, who became popular with a radio show in which he signed off by shouting "Basta!" ("Enough!), is clearly enjoying his time in the spotlight even though his party is unlikely to win any seats.

His party in the most recent polls got just 1.0 percent, although the percentage is higher in the key battleground state of Lombardy.

"Berlusconi is clearly worried that we will make him lose all of northern Italy," Giannino said during a campaign stop this month.

Berlusconi has called Giannino a "Narcissus impressed by television" and has implored him "from the bottom of my heart" to withdraw his candidacy.

Italy's main business daily Il Sole 24 Ore has praised Giannino's economic proposals and the improbable candidate is gaining traction in an industrial heartland among fed-up entrepreneurs.

Emma Marcegaglia, a former president of Italy's main business lobby Confindustria, attended one of Giannino's rallies this month.

"I see politicians changing their ideas all the time, while you have got the numbers behind your proposals and you have been coherent," she said.

Giannino is calling for massive privatisation, a radical re-think of the tax system and an overhaul of bank oversight to prevent crises like the one threatening Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the third largest bank.

"The only priority should be large-scale sell-offs," Giannino, looking like a foppish 19th century stationmaster in a red waistcoat with a purple silk pocket square, told the foreign press corps in Rome earlier this month.

Asked about his dandyish preferences, he said: "I have a crazy passion for luxurious textiles. People can dress like me if they want... But this has nothing to do with my campaign."

Giannino says he wants to put an end to the cronyism of Italian politics.

In one live interview on Rai Uno, the main public television channel, he wrapped himself up in a long metal chain to show the burden of taxes on Italians.

He has even written a play that is touring Italy as part of his campaign.

"An Italian Dinner" tells the story of a dysfunctional family where everyone wants to vote for different candidates until Giannino appears on the scene.

At one recent rally, he quoted Mahatma Gandhi saying: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win."