With only five weeks to go before Italians head to the polls, Gianni Pittella, leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament, has accepted his Democratic Party’s nomination to run for the Senate in the upcoming general election.

Speaking after the centre-left Democratic Party – known as Partido Democratico in Italian – convened Friday to put his candidacy for the Senate forward, Pittella said the March 4 election marked a pivotal moment in modern Italian history.

“The next Italian elections will be a turning point for the future of Italy, but also for the whole of Europe. The Democratic Party remains the last bastion that can prevent Italy from falling to right-wing, populist, and xenophobic movements,” said Pittella.

Having the personal backing of the former prime minister and close ally, Matteo Renzi, is seen as key to the 59-year-old’s chances in the election.

Renzi, who serves as the leader of the Democratic Party, hoped to make a political comeback after he stepped down as prime minister in December 2016 following a major defeat in a constitutional reform referendum, but with his popularity hovering at about 25 percent and hard feelings with the far-left of the party who disliked his centrist policies still lingering, the hopes the Democratic Party now fall to Pittella.

“To win these important elections, Matteo Renzi and the Democratic Party have requested me to run as a candidate for the Senate. As an act of duty and responsibility towards my party, towards Italy, and towards Europe, I have decided to accept this challenge. It will not be an easy battle; Italian politics have entered rough waters.”

Pittella is likely to run as a senator from his native southern region of Basilicata. The Pittella family’s ties to the area run deep and include Gianni’s younger brother, Marcello, who has served as Basilicata’s president since 2013. The brothers’ father, Domenico, was a Socialist Party senator from the region from 1972-1983.

A mainstay of progressive centre-left EU politics since he first arrived in Brussels nearly 20 years ago, Pittella served as one of the 14 Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament from July 2009-July 2014. He took over the S&D leadership in 2014 from Martin Schultz, the current leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.

The path to Rome’s Palazzo Chigi will be anything but easy for the Democratic Party.

Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant 81-year-old, three-time former prime minister and leader of the centre-right Forza Italia party, has again become a major player on the Italian political scene. Berlusconi could emerge as the victor in the next election despite officially being barred from public office until 2019 for a tax fraud conviction.

On its own Forza Italia only commands about 15 percent of the vote, but its right-wing coalition with the hardline nationalist Northern League has gained momentum with voters and is now ahead, polling at just over 30 percent.

Politicians across Europe once treated Berlusconi as a pariah after he left office in disgrace, wracked by accusations of corruption, incompetence, and scandals involving underage North African prostitutes. Only seven years after his resignation, Berlusconi was back in Brussels on January 22, where he presented himself as the one candidate who could bring stability to Italy’s famously fractious political system.

Pittella and the Democratic Party will also have to contend with the populist Eurosceptic Five Star Movement, who lead in the polls with 27 percent of voters’ support. After capturing nearly one-quarter of the seats in the Senate in 2013, and winning local elections in Rome and Turin in 2016, the anti-establishment party under former waiter Luigi Di Maio could easily place first on March 4.

During his Saturday announcement, Pittella said he plans to remain an MEP and leader of the S&D and would coordinate with the rest of the party leadership on how to move forward.

“I will not shy away from my duties as President of the S&D Group and in full cooperation with the S&D Vice-Presidents and Bureau, we will define how to manage the Group most efficiently in the upcoming weeks. Our battle for a more progressive Europe continues,” said Pittella.