Italians will head to the polls on 4 March in elections that look set to result in renewed instability and thrust former leader Silvio Berlusconi back to the centre of the political stage.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s cabinet set the date for the election on Thursday after President Sergio Mattarella dissolved parliament.
Opinion polls suggest no majority for any party, pointing to a likely hung parliament and possible market turbulence in the eurozone’s third largest economy.
The announcement marks the formal opening of an election campaign which has already in practice been raging for weeks.
Currently the largest number of seats looks set to be taken by an alliance centred on Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
That could catapult the 81-year-old four-time Italian premier to the forefront of Italian politics again – though he cannot become prime minister again himself due to a tax fraud conviction.
Mr Gentiloni said the Democratic Party-led government’s survival through a full five-year term was an accomplishment, even though he is the third PM the country has had since the last elections in 2013.
Mr Gentiloni, who has led Italy since last December, has played down fears of instability.
He cited the examples of inconclusive elections in Germany, minority administrations in Spain and Portugal, and Brexit turbulence in Britain.
However, Italy – with the largest public debt in the eurozone after Greece and one of the bloc’s highest unemployment rates – is considered particularly vulnerable.
Its economy is on course for its best annual growth rate since 2010 but it remains among the most sluggish in Europe.
Mr Gentiloni appealed to parties not to peddle fear and make unrealistic promises – with pledges on tax cutting and immigration expected to be key themes in the coming campaign.
The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement leads opinion polls on 28%, followed by the ruling Democratic Party, of which Mr Gentiloni is a member on 23%.
Most seats are expected to go to a conservative alliance, with Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia on 16%, the right-wing Northern League on 13% and Brothers of Italy on 5%.
In that case, President Mattarella would be expected to ask the group to try to form a government.
But if it cannot muster a majority, a second chance may fall to the 5-Star group.
Its leader Luigi Di Maio said on Thursday that he would work for a policy deal with other parties after the election, in a shift away from the movement’s previous refusal to form alliances.