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Who is Italy's quiet leader?

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Who is Italy's quiet leader?

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Unflashy Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni has conquered the centre ground so coveted by former premier Matteo Renzi, becoming more popular than the anti-immigrant firebrands dominating the headlines in the general election campaign -- and even his old boss.

Gentiloni's appointment as PM in December 2016 was widely seen in Italy as a containment move by the outgoing Matteo Renzi, head of the ruling Democratic Party (PD), who had just resigned after losing a referendum on constitutional reform.

Leader of the populist Five Star Movement Luigi Di Maio called the 63-year-old Gentiloni "Renzi's avatar" while Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which is in former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, referred to him as "a puppet".

Few observers fancied his chances of lasting more than a few months in the hot seat.

But with the strong possibility of a hung parliament after the general election on March 4, Gentiloni could remain in that hot seat far beyond polling day, something that would satisfy much of the Italian public.

A recent poll carried out by Istituto Piepoli for daily La Stampa had Gentiloni with a 44 percent approval rating, well ahead of both Di Maio, his nearest rival, and Renzi.

Berlusconi's popularity has fallen, partly due to his sex scandals and legal woes, but his right-wing coalition is expected to pick up the most votes on election day.

Barred from public office because of a fraud conviction, the 81-year-old Berlusconi remains a key figure at the head of his party and sees himself as a kingmaker.