Spain's King Juan Carlos has given his royal assent to the dissolution of parliament, paving the way for a general election.
By Katya Adler
The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, has now officially confirmed 14 March as the date for the election, which heralds his resignation from politics.
After confirming the dissolution of parliament and the official date for the election, Mr Aznar strongly defended his two terms in power.
Aznar (right) is standing down after two terms in office
He insisted his government had "brought Spain the stability it needs", and said it would be a mistake for a future administration to call into question the merits of his economic policies.
Certainly Mr Aznar has cut public sector benefits and halved Spain's unemployment rate, though at 11% it remains the highest in Europe.
Although Mr Aznar is retiring from politics, opinion polls indicate his Popular Party will comfortably win another term in government, with his successor, Mariano Rajoy - often caricatured in the Spanish media as Mr Aznar's shadow - in the driving seat.
If this is the case, it will rather be the result of a badly-organised left-wing opposition than the convincing performance of the Popular Party, which angered the majority of Spaniards with its unquestioning support of the US-led war on Iraq.
More than 33 million Spaniards are eligible to go to the polls but as in many other countries around Europe there are strong signs of voter apathy, with much of the Spanish electorate complaining that they have little faith in any of Spain's main political parties.