updated 2/11/2006 8:45:34 AM ET 2006-02-11T13:45:34

Italy dissolved its parliament on Saturday and scheduled elections for early April, opening a campaign that pits Premier Silvio Berlusconi against a strong center-left opponent.

The government set the date during a Cabinet meeting minutes after the Italian president signed a decree that dissolved parliament, ending a five-year legislature.

The election date had been agreed upon in previous weeks between Berlusconi and the president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. Opposition leaders had also signed off on the date.

Parliament ended two weeks later than originally planned, after Berlusconi negotiated a delay that allowed his government to rush through a flurry of last-minute legislation. It also allowed the premier to keep up a barrage of TV and radio appearances, which will be limited during official campaigning because of rules aimed at giving competing coalitions equal air time.

“I’ll be able to rest a bit,” Berlusconi said, speaking on a talk show late Friday.

Despite the media blitz, opinion polls have consistently indicated that the center-left bloc headed by Romano Prodi, a former premier and former European Commission president, is leading the race by some five percentage points.

Premier confident
Berlusconi, a key ally of President Bush in the Iraq war, has expressed confidence that his media campaign will bear fruit, saying his own pollsters indicate the two blocs are virtually level.

“I have absolutely no doubt over the fact that I will govern for another five years,” he said Friday on the sidelines of a conference in Rome.

Among the measures approved in the final parliamentary sessions were funding for the Winter Olympics, which opened Friday in Turin, and for Italy’s dwindling contingent in Iraq, where some 2,600 Italian troops are currently posted.

Berlusconi, a key ally of President Bush who was elected in 2001, has been plagued by legal troubles surrounding his Milan-based business empire since he entered politics. He has contended he is the victim of a campaign by left-leaning magistrates.

Center-left parties — which range from centrist moderates to communists and secular radicals — are divided over proposals for a quick pullout from Iraq and granting legal rights to same-sex couples.

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