Letta sets agenda, bids to ease govt tensions

Four top issues identified for executive's first 100 days

Letta sets agenda, bids to ease govt tensions

(By Kate Carlisle) Rome, May 13 - Four issues will top the government's agenda in its first 100 days in office, Premier Enrico Letta said after a 24-hour bonding and planning 'retreat' in a Tuscan abbey Monday. The issues are: creating jobs for young people; agreeing on changes to the IMU property tax which ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi wants scrapped and rebated; tax breaks to encourage entrepreneurs; and political reforms to cut spending and abuse which have created widespread public disenchantment. He also said Italy needed to change its electoral law and strip the Senate of law-making powers, turning it into a regional assembly, to avoid gridlock like the two-month stalemate that followed February's inconclusive general election. A special body called a convention will be set up to agree constitutional reforms and will be led by the House and Senate Constitutional Affairs committee chiefs. A panel of "external" experts to give the convention reform proposals will be set up shortly. Previous attempts to remove the powers of the Senate - at present equally as powerful as the House - have foundered on the upper house's reluctance to vote itself out of existence. However, a huge justice row has overshadowed Letta's attempts to forge his disparate cabinet into a closely knit unit with the ministers' retreat. Letta, who was sworn in at the helm of an unprecedented left-right coalition government 15 days ago, cobbled together the abbey retreat to loosen knots and strengthen bonds in an executive spanning his own centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) Party, long foes until Italy's post-election stalemate forced them to become strange bedfellows. Letta and members of his centre-left Democratic Party are furious that PdL ministers took part in a demonstration in Brescia on Saturday against alleged persecution by some magistrates of 76-year-old ex-premier Berlusconi. The rally, which included the participation of Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, was called after a Milan court failed to overturn a four-year conviction Berlusconi was handed for fraud at his media empire. "Occasions like Brescia are unacceptable," Letta's spokesman said Sunday on the first day of the retreat. "They cannot be repeated because the negative effects are greater than the government's ability to stay together. "Letta has repeatedly said that he is not prepared to keep the government going at any cost". The row increased tensions within an alliance between two parties that have long been fierce foes which were already high following the Berlusconi's threats to sink the fledgling executive unless it scraps a property tax called IMU and returns revenues taken from it in 2012. Letta has pledged to suspend June IMU payments but has not said he will abolish the tax completely. Letta said the cabinet will make a decision on IMU on Friday. The PdL said there was nothing wrong with ministers taking part in Saturday's rally. "The PdL won't bring down its banners and hide its identity," said Alfano's spokeswoman. "It will remain by Berlusconi's side". Stopping ministers from taking part in electoral rallies or televised debates not connected with their portfolios was proposed by Letta as a sensible way to prevent tensions within his left-right government exploding. Letta said that the proposal to limit ministers' public appearances was "a decision of good sense to resolve the problems that exist and which cannot be solved with a magic wand. We need rules". He added that the new government "should do a job that is based as much as possible on a language of frankness and reciprocal respect". "There are problems but the government does not intend to be overwhelmed by them. We are working on the country's problems for the good of the entire nation," Alfano said in a joint press conference with Letta on Monday.

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