ROME (AFP) — Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was set to dissolve parliament on Wednesday, paving the way for early elections and a probable return to power by conservative media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
Napolitano met Tuesday evening with both speakers of parliament, the prelude to dissolving parliament.
Neither Senate Speaker Franco Marini nor his lower house counterpart Fausto Bertinotti spoke to the media afterward.
But the ANSA news agency reported that centre-left leader Romano Prodi, who resigned as prime minister two weeks ago, would co-sign a decree dissolving parliament on Wednesday.
Elections are expected on April 13-14 in the wake of Prodi's resignation and the failure of attempts to form an interim government to reform Italy's unpopular election law.
Berlusconi and his allies on the right have been clamouring for snap elections since voter surveys began favouring them by double-digit margins.
The vote now visible on the horizon, campaign fever is already in the air, with Berlusconi facing a new rival in the form of popular 52-year-old Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, the new flagbearer of the left.
"The Giants won in the end, so can we," Veltroni said, referring to the upset win by the New York Giants in Sunday's American football Super Bowl.
The new face-off makes a change from the three previous duels between the flamboyant Berlusconi and his professorial arch-rival Prodi, both of them now former prime ministers twice over.
With 68-year-old Prodi's political star on the wane, the centre-left has been grooming Veltroni, who served as his culture minister in the 1990s, to succeed him.
However, the Rome mayor insists he is running only as the leader of the Democratic Party (DP), the left's largest formation, and not the eventual head of a coalition.
Perhaps Veltroni "doesn't want to win this election but the next one," said political scientist Franco Pavoncello.
"He wants to establish himself on the national scene as the leader of the opposition and distance himself from the far left."
Communist deputy Pino Sgobio fumed that Veltroni's stance was a "suicidal" gift to Berlusconi.
Italy's richest man, who goes by the nickname Il Cavaliere (The Knight), "already knows whom to thank for victory," Sgobio told reporters.
James Walston, Pavoncello's colleague at the American University of Rome, said: "There's going to be a lot of sparks between the communists and the DP" over Veltroni's go-it-alone approach.
But "if they make it too obvious they will also shoot themselves in the foot," he said. "They can't be too rude about each other" in case they wind up forming a coalition after all, Walston said.
Berlusconi was silent on the political front Tuesday as he and hundreds of others mourned his mother Rosa Bossi, who died Sunday aged 97.
Italy's political crisis came to a head on Monday as Senate Speaker Marini threw in the towel after failing to form an interim government tasked with shepherding electoral reforms through parliament.
Berlusconi, who heads the largest party on the right, Forza Italia, refused to support Marini's efforts, insisting that only early elections could end the political crisis sparked by the collapse of Prodi's centre-left government last month.
The opposition leader has been bouyed by the government crisis, reemerging as the uncontested leader of the centre-right which only three months ago was ravaged by infighting.
For its part the centre-left, in disarray since Prodi's demise was triggered by the defection of a tiny party near the centre, pushed for electoral reforms.
Under current law, voting is entirely by proportional representation and the April 2006 elections saw 22 parties win seats in parliament, with most of the tiniest on the left, resulting in Prodi's unstable coalition.
Most voters themselves are also opposed to new polls under the current rules, a recent survey found.
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