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Japan PM faces opposition within party to revamp

UNPOPULAR Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso's plan to revamp his top party line-up before a tough election faced stiff opposition today, although domestic media said he might manage to add fresh faces to his cabinet.

Aso, whose ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is in danger of losing a general election that must be held by October, was considering announcing plans to dissolve the lower house of parliament for an early August poll, Japanese newspapers said.

Surveys have shown the main opposition Democratic Party ahead in the run-up to the election, boosting chances of an end to more than five decades of almost unbroken rule by the conservative LDP and resolution of a political deadlock that has stymied polices as Japan struggles with recession.

Aso said on Tuesday he was considering changes to his cabinet and the party leadership, but heavyweights in the LDP's biggest faction are opposed to a party shake-up.

Yoshitaka Murata, the LDP's deputy head of parliamentary affairs, told reporters he was against the personnel change, and that aides to Aso were leading the prime minister astray.

"I wish they would stop giving him advice. I want them to be quiet," Murata said.

Analysts say Aso, whose ratings have sunk below 20 percent in some polls, hopes to boost his standing with voters by appointing telegenic lawmakers to key party posts and clear the way for an election in early August before moves to oust him gather steam.


Some in the party find that logic perplexing, since Aso decided the lineup himself when he took office last September.

"The prime minister picked them himself and it is rude to then say they lack appeal," the Yomiuri newspaper quoted an upper house senior lawmaker as saying about the planned shake-up.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, who has had to help Aso get out of hot water in the past, said he thought the premier's remark on Tuesday referred to the need to relieve ministers such as Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano of their multiple portfolios rather than revamping the top party personnel.

"The prime minister has thought for some time that ministers should not have multiple portfolios forever," Kawamura told a news conference. "I think that is what he had in mind."

Aso might make public his plan to dissolve the lower house right before or during a July 8-10 Group of Eight summit in Italy to avoid having his hands tied by potentially poor results in a July 12 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, media said.

But Aso's LDP critics are also opposed to rushing into a national vote that some forecast could see the party lose almost half of its 303 seats in the 480-member lower house.

LDP heavyweights were not, however, against some changes in the cabinet, domestic media said.

Yosano added the finance and financial services portfolios to his economics minister post when Aso ally Shoichi Nakagawa quit in February after being forced to deny he was drunk at a G7 news conference.

Internal Affairs minister Tsutomu Sato added that portfolio to his other posts after another close Aso ally quit in June, and speculation is simmering that the prime minister might tap Hideo Higashikokubaru, a popular comedian-turned-governor with national political ambitions, for the position.


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