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Italy set for polls as bid to change electoral law fails

Italy was bracing for a spring general election last night after prime minister-designate Franco Marini told the head of state that, in four days of consultations with political parties, he had been unable to obtain a consensus for a "technical government" to change the electoral law.

Romano Prodi' s government fell last month, and Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Forza Italia, the biggest party in the country, and his centre-right allies have been demanding immediate elections, heartened by a double-digit lead in the polls. Now it seems almost certain that they will get their way and that Italy will vote again in April or May.

After meeting Mr Marini yesterday, Mr Berlusconi said: "We hope – and we think that's what will happen – that ... the head of state will call elections immediately, because the country quickly needs an efficient government."

Mr Prodi's coalition fell at a confidence vote last month after a tiny part of the grouping, the Christian Democratic UDEUR party, broke away. But President Giorgio Napolitano declined to dissolve parliament and call elections, citing the urgent need to do something about the electoral system.

An electoral reform passed by Mr Berlusconi in the last year of his government has permitted even tiny parties into parliament and encouraged the fragmentation of larger units.

There is broad cross-party agreement that it should be replaced, but Mr Berlusconi has chosen to insist on elections now. He says cross-party talks can begin after the election.