By Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti tendered his resignation to the president on Friday after 13 months in office, opening the way to a highly uncertain national election in February.
The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an unelected government to save Italy from financial crisis a year ago, has kept his own political plans a closely guarded secret but he has faced growing pressure to seek a second term.
President Giorgio Napolitano is expected to dissolve parliament in the next few days and has already indicated that the most likely date for the election is February 24.
In an unexpected move, Napolitano said he would hold consultations with political leaders from all the main parties on Saturday to discuss the next steps. In the meantime Monti will continue in a caretaker capacity.
European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso have called for Monti's economic reform agenda to continue but Italy's two main parties have said he should stay out of the race.
Monti, who handed in his resignation during a brief meeting at the presidential palace shortly after parliament approved his government's 2013 budget, will hold a news conference on Sunday at which he is expected clarify his intentions.
Ordinary Italians are weary of repeated tax hikes and spending cuts and opinion polls offer little evidence that they are ready to give Monti a second term. A survey this week showed 61 percent saying he should not stand.
Whether he runs or not, his legacy will loom over an election which will be fought out over the painful measures he has introduced to try to rein in Italy's huge public debt and revive its stagnant economy.
His resignation came a couple of months before the end of his term, after his technocrat government lost the support of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party in parliament earlier this month.
Speculation is swirling over Monti's next moves. These could include outlining policy recommendations, endorsing a centrist alliance committed to his reform agenda or even standing as a candidate in the election himself.
The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has held a strong lead in the polls for months but a centrist alliance led by Monti could gain enough support in the Senate to force the PD to seek a coalition deal which could help shape the economic agenda.
BERLUSCONI IN WINGS
Senior figures from the alliance, including both the UDC party, which is close to the Roman Catholic Church, and a new group founded by Ferrari sports car chairman Luca di Montezemolo, have been hoping to gain Monti's backing. Continued...