Romano Prodi has announced that he is “finished” with politics in Italy.

He has served twice as Prime Minister and heads the interim government in place until the country holds a general election next month.

Mr Prodi, who also served as President of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004, lost the support of parliament in January after a nine-party coalition government he was leading fell apart.

“I am finished with Italian politics and possibly also with politics in general,” he told Sky TG24 television.

“The world is full of opportunities and there are so many people who are awaiting help and peace. There is always something new to build.”

Centre-right politician and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi launched his campaign on Sunday, with polls indicating he and his party are between six and ten points ahead.

“If you want to avoid a victory of the Democratic Party, the only effective way is to vote for the People of Freedom. Is that clear?” he told supporters, according to Reuters.

“Other votes, for smaller parties, are ineffective, lost, votes that play into the hands of the other side.”

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 was 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.