Italy's head of state dissolved parliament today, opening the way to a February election, after Mario Monti resigned as prime minister yesterday.

Mr Monti resigned a couple of months ahead of the end of his term of office, after his technocrat government lost the support of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party.

For weeks, speculation has increased over what role Mr Monti will play in the election, which cabinet confirmed would be held over two days on 24 and 25 February.

The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an unelected government to save Italy from financial crisis a year ago, has faced growing pressure to seek a second term.

Earlier this week Italian media widely reported he would do so.

That now seems far less certain, as Mr Monti has had to digest opinion polls that suggest a centrist group headed by him would probably come a distant third or even fourth in the election.

The centre-left Democratic party (PD), led by Pier Luigi Bersani, is favourite to win.

"The outcome of the election may well not be all that favourable and the question is where that would leave his own credibility and also his reform agenda," a person close to Mr Monti said.

Italy's main newspapers reported this morning that he was inclined not to run, partly because of disappointing opinion polls and partly because of doubts about the quality of the centrist parties that would be using his name.

Another source familiar with the discussions that have been going on between Mr Monti and these centrist groups said he was no longer in direct contact with his potential allies and was now thinking things through on his own.

"It's very open, Monti's looking at all the possibilities and thinking," the source said.

"The thing is that without him, the centrist project doesn't make any sense."

Several centrist politicians who had been hoping for Mr Monti's endorsement appeared almost resigned to going on alone.

"Monti would have given more significance to the initiative but it doesn't change things," Ferdinando Adornato, a member of the centrist UDC party told TGCom 24 news television.

"What Bersani and Berlusconi are offering is not enough to change the situation from what it was before Monti arrived."

European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso have called for Mr Monti's economic reform agenda to continue.

However, Italy's two main parties insist he should stay out of the race.

"We underlined the fact that as we're going into elections with a non-elected, technocrat government, that government, in the person of the prime minister, should remain outside the contest," Fabrizio Cicchitto, PDL leader in the lower house of parliament said after meeting President Giorgio Napolitano.

Italians are weary of repeated tax hikes and spending cuts and opinion polls offer little evidence they are ready to give Mr Monti a second term.

A survey this week showed 61% saying he should not stand.

Mr Berlusconi, who was forced to make way for Mr Monti in November last year as Italian borrowing costs surged, has stepped up attacks on his successor in recent days and welcomed his resignation.

"Today the experience of the technical government is finished and we must hope there will never again be a similar suspension of democracy," he told reporters.

Mr Monti, who has kept his cards close to his chest, is expected to outline his plans at a news conference tomorrow.