The President of Italy today formally dissolved the country’s parliament after the coalition government fell apart last month.

Romano Prodi, who resigned as Prime Minister but remained in a caretaker role, is expected to hold a cabinet meeting later today to fix a date for new elections.

Reports from Rome indicate that April 13th or 14th are the most likely dates.

Romano Prodi’s government fell after he lost a vote of confidence in the Italian Senate last week.

The Roman Catholic Udeur party’s withdrawl of support was key to the defeat.

The new elections come two years after a coalition of nine parties took office.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is leading in opinion polls.

The crisis began in January when Christian Democrat leader Clemente Mastella resigned as Justice minister after his wife was embroiled in a corruption scandal.

He complained that his coalition partners had been insufficiently supportive and that the corruption investigation is retaliation for his attempts to reform the judiciary.

The nature of the Italian political system means that since 1945 the country has mostly been ruled by fragile coalitions, and the group of parties that finally removed Mr Berlusconi from office in April 2006 were no different.

Mr Prodi’s commitment to increased gay rights caused tension in the coalition, which ranged from Communists to Roman Catholic parties.

Proposals from ministers to bring forward a draft bill that would grant any unwed couple, gay or straight, the right to register themselves as a family stalled.

The proposed new law would also grant some pension and health insurance rights, but falls far short of the civil partnerships gay and lesbians in the UK enjoy.

Italy is perhaps the only country in Europe where the Roman Catholic Church retains such strong influence over politics.

Church-state relations remain frosty following Pope Benedict XVI’s repeated attacks on the proposed legislation to recognise gay couples.

If new elections bring Mr Berlusconi and his allies back into office the gay rights agenda is likely to be abandoned completely.