ITALIAN Prime Minister Mario Monti has resigned, paving the way for elections in February.
Mr Monti, a professor of economics, was appointed to lead an unelected technocratic government a year ago as Italy plunged into a financial crisis.
A confirmed europhile, Mr Monti's appointment, it was hoped, would bring stability and continuity to Italy and also help Brussels in its efforts to overcome the financial crisis.
He handed in his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano yesterday after passage of the 2013 budget.
"The government has now terminated its role, but not because of the Mayan prophecy," he joked with staff after attending a morning Mass.
In his last formal act as prime minister, he spoke to Italy's foreign ambassadors, stressing the importance of continued close economic and military collaboration with European partners and the US.
"Since I am about to give my resignation, I want to thank you now for sharing with me these very difficult but fascinating 13 months," he told the diplomats, who gave him a standing ovation.
Mr Monti's resignation came after his government lost support of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-Right People of Freedom (PDL) party earlier this month.
The billionaire media tycoon, who has mounted an intensive media campaign in the past week in which he said Italy "needs" him, will aim to become prime minister for a fourth time in February.
Mr Berlusconi, however, faces stiff competition from leader of the centre-left Democratic Party Pier Luigi Bersani; while Mr Monti is also expected to announce tomorrow whether he will throw his hat into the ring at a news conference.
The lower house gave final approval to the budget early yesterday evening , wrapping up its last piece of business before Mr Napolitano dissolves parliament.
Mr Monti has kept his intentions a closely guarded secret.
He has been linked to a centrist alliance that has pledged to continue his reforms but he has yet to say whether he will campaign actively.
However, he has dropped heavy hints that he will continue to push a reform agenda that has the backing of both Italy's business community and its European partners.
Ordinary Italians, weary of repeated tax hikes and spending cuts, appear less convinced and opinion polls show little sign that voters are ready to give Mr Monti a second term, with a survey this week showing 61pc saying he should not stand.
Whether or not he stands as a candidate, he is expected to overshadow an election which will be fought out over the painful measures he has introduced to try to rein in Italy's huge public debt and revive its stagnant economy.
The Democratic Party (PD) has held a strong lead in the polls for months but a centrist alliance led by Mr Monti could gain enough support in the Senate to force the PD to seek a coalition deal which could help shape the economic agenda. Mr Berlusconi's return to the political front line has, however, added to the already considerable uncertainty surrounding the race and increased the likelihood of a messy and potentially bitter election campaign. (©Daily Telegraph, London)