By Silvia Ognibene
SARTEANO, Italy (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta on Monday urged ministers to avoid public disagreements on divisive issues, as he sought to safeguard the stability of a fragile government grouping former adversaries from the left and right.
Letta's first few weeks in office have been marked by simmering coalition tensions over tax policy, immigration and, most recently, the legal problems of center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi.
Speaking during a two-day retreat in the Tuscan countryside aimed at fostering team spirit among the cabinet, Letta said the get-together had been marked by "frankness" and a commitment to "mutual loyalty."
The center-left prime minister said the gathering had set the "ground rules" for his government during its first 100 days which will focus on tackling youth unemployment, ending a long recession, reform of the electoral law and tax changes.
During this time, ministers will not participate in campaigns for upcoming mayoral elections and not give interviews on issues outside their immediate policy mandates, he said.
"We have to focus on the policies, because if we concentrate on political clashes we will hit a wall straight away," he said.
One of the most contentious issues has been a center-right demand to scrap an unpopular housing tax which Letta has partially agreed to meet by suspending the next levy, due in June, ahead of a broader tax reform.
The suspension will cost around 2 billion euros and the premier told reporters he would announce how the move will be financed after the next cabinet meeting on Friday.
On Sunday, Letta clashed with deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano, the national secretary of Berlusconi's party, over Alfano's attendance at a weekend rally where Berlusconi attacked judges he said were persecuting him on political grounds.
Alfano, speaking alongside Letta, said the meeting in Tuscany "obviously didn't overcome the problems" but the government was determined to carry on "for the good of Italy."
Letta said he would appoint a commission of experts to come up with a new electoral law quickly as a "safety net" so that new elections can produce a workable majority if the "unthinkable happens" and the government suddenly collapses.
The current electoral law is widely blamed for contributing to the outcome of February's vote which produced no clear winner and, after two months of stalemate, eventually forced the left and right into their uneasy coalition.
In another pledge aimed at shoring up his government, Letta said all laws would be passed with the backing of parties making up the government rather than with "variable majorities."
The center-right has been concerned that social policies it opposes, such as gay marriage or expanding the citizenship rights of immigrants, could be passed with the backing of leftist parties formally outside the ruling coalition.
(Writing by Gavin Jones; editing by Mike Collett-White)