Starting gun fired for knife-edge Italian election
The Italian government has set March 4 as the date for electing the next parliament, formally launching what is shaping up to be an especially bruising campaign.
The general election was scheduled after President Sergio Mattarella dissolved the sitting legislature, following a meeting in Rome with Premier Paolo Gentiloni and the leaders of both houses.
During his end-of-year news conference earlier on Thursday, Mr Gentiloni counted the Democratic Party-led government's survival through a full five-year term - albeit under the leadership of three premiers - as an accomplishment.
A coalition led by the Democrats received 29.55% of the vote in the last election, held in February 2013, just ahead of the centre-right at 29.18%.
Enrico Letta led the government after the then-party leader, Pierluigi Bersani, was unable to form a government.
Mr Letta was ousted 10 months later by Matteo Renzi, who in turn resigned last December after staking his government on a constitutional referendum that failed.
Mr Renzi ceded the government to Mr Gentiloni, his foreign minister.
With the upcoming vote also shaping up to be tight, Mr Gentiloni warned against scaremongering.
"The more we have an election campaign that veers from the easy sale of fear, the better it will be for the country," he said.
The Democratic Party splintered and weakened following Mr Renzi's resignation a year ago.
The Forza Italia party led by former three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi is locked in a struggle with Matteo Salvini's anti-migrant, anti-euro League for dominance of the centre-right.
While Mr Berlusconi cannot run for office due to a tax-fraud conviction, Mr Salvini has set himself up as his party's premier candidate, if the newly rebranded League comes out of the election on top.
The vulnerability of the traditional political powers is giving further impetus to the populist 5-Star Movement, which remains Italy's most popular single party but has refused to join a national coalition with any force.
Political analyst Wolfango Piccoli said the likely outcome of the next election is a hung parliament.
Polls show the centre-right with 37 to 39% of the vote, the 5-Star Movement just below 30% and the Democratic Party sliding to less than one-quarter, he said.
Mr Gentiloni's government comes to an end with Italy's economy experiencing higher-than-forecast annual growth of 1.5% of GDP and much of the country on a financial upswing.
He cited domestic achievements of his year as head of government, including passage of a law recognising same-sex unions and another on living wills.
A key issue in the upcoming campaign will be Europe's migrant crisis.
Italy, one of the first stops for new arrivals, has struggled to cope with the thousands who fled poverty, conflict and oppression, mostly from the Middle East and Africa.
Mr Gentiloni's government opened a humanitarian corridor to allow a very limited number of migrants in Libya to go to Italy by plane, avoiding the deadly Mediterranean Sea passage, for the first time.