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Aso now an election liability

JAPANESE Prime Minister Taro Aso's plummeting voter support is sparking open talk in his party of replacing the unpopular leader ahead of an election this year, but politicians differed on when he should go.

Aso, his public support in tatters after policy flip-flops and gaffes, took a potentially lethal hit on Tuesday when Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, a close ally, resigned after he was forced to deny he was drunk at a G7 news conference in Rome.

The fiasco has sparked speculation that Aso may be dumped ahead of a election that his conservative Liberal Democratic Party looks increasingly likely to lose. That would end more than half a century of almost unbroken LDP rule and bring to power the untested opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a mix of former LDP members, ex-socialists and younger conservatives.

An election must be held by October.

"Most people are thinking that we cannot fight an election under Aso," LDP upper house politician Ichita Yamamoto, an outspoken critic of the premier, said.

But with the public growing weary of the parade of premiers - Aso is the third since the last election - replacing the leader "is not so easy," Yamamoto added.

The political turmoil comes as Japan's economy is shrinking at an alarming pace, and some LDP lawmakers stressed that battling the recession should be the top priority.

The LDP's Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 58, a former chief cabinet secretary and ex-central banker, said current spending plans that include a record 88.5 trillion yen (US$960 billion) budget for the year from April 1 were not enough. He urged the government to craft an extra 30 trillion yen budget for 2009/10.

"Enacting that is the top priority. We are not in a situation where we should change the prime minister or have an election. If we change the prime minister, there would be a blank," Shiozaki, an Aso critic, said.

Yuji Tsushima, 79, head of the LDP's tax panel, echoed the stress on economic steps. "We are not at a stage where we should be playing a blame game," he said. "We need to first pass the budget, or else we can't do anything for the people."

The LDP tapped Aso, 68, last September in hopes the outspoken nationalist could lead them to victory in the election. Instead, his ratings have plummeted.


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