ROME - An Italian court refused on Monday to reinstate a candidate list for the Rome province presented by the ruling coalition for regional polls, in an unexpected blow to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's election hopes.

Berlusconi's government had rushed through a widely-criticised decree on Friday to ensure its list was reinstated, after failing to submit documents on time to the electoral office.

The decree modified the rules on the admission of lists for the elections, saying it was enough for party officials to be present in the building at the deadline for the presentation of candidates, even if the list was not submitted.

Outraged opposition leaders have vowed to protest the decree in parliament and on the streets. Berlusconi's party has presented the decree as giving Italians the right to vote, while the opposition has called it a blatant bending of the rules.

The March 28-29 regional polls in 13 of Italy's 20 regions are seen as a test of national strength for Berlusconi's centre-right coalition, amid signs the premier's popularity is slipping.

(Writing by Deepa Babington and Gavin Jones)