/ 27 February 2009

Record budget to up pressure for Japan’s PM to quit

Japan’s lower house of Parliament approved a record budget on Friday, a step likely to intensify pressure for unpopular Prime Minister Taro Aso to quit before an election this year.

Support for Aso’s Cabinet is languishing below 10% in one poll and not much higher in others after a series of policy flip-flops and gaffes, eroding his clout in the ruling party before an election that must be held by October.

Faced with fresh data showing a record drop in factory output and bleak job conditions, Aso got some respite after the lower house passed an 88,5-trillion yen ($898,5-billion) budget for the fiscal year starting on April 1.

The decision clears the way for the budget to be enacted by the end of March, after which ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers could well step up calls to replace Aso ahead of an election that surveys show it is likely to lose.

In a sign of growing frustration with Aso, former LDP secretary-general Tsutomu Takebe told Reuters on Thursday that the party should not fight this year’s election with Aso at its helm. He repeated the comments to reporters on Friday.

With or without Aso as premier, analysts say the LDP still faces a big threat of defeat at the polls as more voters pin their hopes for change on the main opposition Democratic Party.

”I think this is a prime minister and a Cabinet who deserve a no-confidence motion or a censure [in the upper house], and 70% to 80% of the people are saying, ‘Mr Aso, you should quit’,” the Democrats’ leader, Ichiro Ozawa, told a news conference in Yokohama, where he was introducing a new candidate.

Hanging on
Analysts said, however, that in the absence of an obvious successor who could turn things around for the LDP, Aso would try to hang on as long as possible, countering critics with threats to call an early poll and promising more economic stimulus ahead.

”Very few in the LDP want an early election under Aso,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University.

”So he holds the last card. As long as Aso says he’ll stay and hints at calling an early election, he’ll be able to contain moves against him within the party.”

Aso, who won a party leadership vote last September in his fourth attempt for the job, has also filled his schedule in the coming months with a series of diplomatic events, suggesting he has no intention of resigning voluntarily.

Media have reported plans for Aso to visit China in late March, while a G20 summit meeting of leading and emerging nations is due in London on April 2. Aso also appears keen to attend a Group of Eight summit in Italy in July.

”Aso could offer to give up the leadership if he knew it were going to someone he trusts, but I don’t think he has any close allies like that now,” said Naoto Nonaka, professor of comparative politics at Gakushuin University.

”He’ll probably hang on until after the [July] summit.” — Reuters