Mario Monti has handed in his resignation to Italy's president, bringing to a close his 13-month technical government and preparing the country for national elections.
President Giorgio Napolitano accepted the resignation on Friday evening and asked Monti, who said his brief time in office had been "difficult but fascinating", to stay on as head of a caretaker government until the vote, expected in February.
Monti kept his pledge to step down as soon as parliament gives final passage to the 2013 budget law.
In what was his last official public act as prime minister, Monti earlier told foreign diplomats in Rome on Friday that his year-old technical government had rendered the country "more trustworthy''.
He cited structural reforms, such as measures to improve competition and liberalise services, as well as the recently approved anti-corruption law.
Monti, who became prime minister after Silvio Berlusconi lost his parliamentary majority in November 2011, is expected to reveal the extent of his future political ambitions during an end-of-year news conference, scheduled for Sunday at 10:00 GMT.
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Sources close to the technocrat prime minister insist he has yet to decide whether to join the race, despite appearing to launch a bid for a key role in the campaign with a rousing speech at a Fiat factory on Thursday.
"Monti has not made any decision yet," sources told the AFP news agency.
His popularity is also said to be taking a downward spiral, declining from a peak of 62 percent shortly after he came to power down to 33 percent at present.
Some political observers have been speculating that Monti is planning to take part in the campaign as unofficial leader of a centrist coalition that has been likened to the Christian-Democrats who dominated Italy for decades.
Monti's name cannot be on the ballot as he is already a senator for life, but he can still be appointed to a post in government including prime minister or finance minister.
The AFP cited sources quoted by the newspaper Corriere as saying the centrist agenda will include "historic reforms" and "far deeper liberalisation than we have witnessed so far".
According to the online edition of La Stampa daily, Monti had been eager to run for the top job but has now given up on the idea.
"He no longer intends to be a candidate for the centrists, or even give them his endorsement," it said.
Instead, he will propose "a type of Monti Memorandum of things done and still to do," it said, adding that the prime minister was unwilling to risk running for a post he may not win.
|Monti was brought in to form a technocratic
government last year [Reuters]
Monti, 69, defended on Thursday the "bitter medicine" of budget discipline he has implemented and warned against any attempt to turn back the clock.
While the financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore said that "Monti's strength lies in his ability to address Italians with a direct language," La Stampa described his actions as a "strange electoral bid... a prelude, on Monti's part, to a rethink of the decision to candidate himself".
While supporters applaud Monti for having launched a far-reaching programme of austerity and reforms that has reassured the financial markets, his popularity has been hit among ordinary Italians as the debt-laden country grapples with record-high unemployment and a recession-hit economy.
The current favourite in the opinion polls is centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who has promised to continue Monti's reforms while adding "jobs and equity".
Billionaire Berlusconi, 76, who has swung back and forth on whether to run for the top job a sixth time, warned Monti against joining the campaign and condemned his economic policies.