ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti sought on Friday to put out a growing political storm over comments reported from his trip in Asia in which he appeared to criticize the political parties which back his unelected government in parliament.
Monti triggered widespread media and political criticism in Italy after remarks which seemed aimed at politicians who have been slow to back his planned reforms of Italy's labor market.
"The government enjoys high support in opinion polls, the parties do not," he told a conference in Tokyo.
In an open letter to the Corriere della Sera newspaper published on Friday, Monti, a former European Commissioner appointed in November to the helm of a "technocrat" government, said that his comments had been misinterpreted.
"I very much regret this, and all the more so as these reflections, expressed during a long speech in English, had the opposite intention from that which was attributed to them out of context," he said.
"They were intended to underline the fact that even in a difficult political period, Italian political forces are showing themselves strong and capable of looking to the interests of the country."
Monti's comments highlight the growing political tensions surrounding economic reforms which have aroused strong opposition from the unions and the centre-left and lowered his approval ratings among ordinary Italians.
After a four-month political honeymoon following his appointment to succeed the scandal-plagued Silvio Berlusconi and calm financial markets that were threatening to engulf Italy in a Greek-style crisis, Monti has run into serious headwinds.
Italy's biggest union, the CGIL, is planning to go on strike against reform proposals that would make it easier for companies to sack employees. The centre-left Democratic Party, which normally supports Monti, has vowed to force the premier to back down on the plans.
That has set up a confrontation with the centre-right PDL, the other main party backing the government, which wants the changes implemented as they stand.
Monti said he was convinced that political parties and Italian citizens would act responsibly to restore growth and investment and find jobs for young people. He said he expected this would continue after his term ended in 2013.
(Reporting By James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)