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Japan PM under fire after string of gaffes

world Updated: Nov 21, 2008 11:56 IST
Linda Sieg
Linda Sieg
Reuters
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Prime Minister Taro Aso's top aide urged him on Friday to watch what he says, the second straight day that the Japanese leader was warned after a series of gaffes that have left some analysts wondering about his grip on power.

In the space of a few days, the outspoken 68-year-old Aso has managed to offend doctors, insult parents, upset reformers and irk ruling party barons with ties to road construction.

"I think what is necessary ... is for the prime minister to keep quiet and then take responsibility and make the final decisions," Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told a reporters when asked about Aso's latest controversial remarks.

Analysts said Aso's string of comments reflected not only his gaffe-prone personality but also disarray ahead of an election due by next September that could oust the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled for most of the past 53 years.

An LDP defeat would spell a raft of policy unknowns as the opposition Democrats, a hodge-podge of ex-LDP members, socialists and younger lawmakers, took their first shot at governing.

"He's looking like a prime minister who has only several months to go," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.

"He's the pilot of a plane that has lost control. There is turbulence after turbulence and passengers are getting nervous."

Kawamura had already chided Aso on Thursday for saying

doctors "lacked common sense", a remark that outraged physicians who have long backed the LDP.

Also this week Aso, apparently thinking he was addressing a teachers' group, told an audience mostly of parents that it was mums and dads who needed to be scolded rather than kids.

He also made comments raising doubts about his commitment to postal privatisation, the reform rallying cry under which the ruling bloc won a huge electoral victory in 2005.

Then he suggested that road-related tax revenues could be doled out to local governments with no strings attached, outraging LDP lawmakers backed by firms that build roads.

Paralysis and Rifts

Aso took power office in September after his predecessor abruptly quit in the face of a stalemate in parliament, the second Japanese premier to throw in the towel in a year.

He had been widely expected to call a snap election to seek a mandate to break the deadlock, but an economy in recession and surveys showing the ruling bloc could lose have stayed his hand.

The parliamentary paralysis has also deepened as the main opposition party tries to force a snap poll by refusing to vote on key bills in the opposition-controlled upper house, unless Aso submits an extra budget to fund promised economic stimulus steps.

In a sign of the rifts in the LDP, a group of younger lawmakers urged Aso on Friday to submit the extra budget before the end of the year to help ease a recession.

"Aso became prime minister because they hoped he could lead his party to an election win, but that has become doubtful," said Yasunori Sone, a Keio University political science professor.

"If Aso cannot call an election by April or May, then his Liberal Democratic Party is highly likely to pick a new leader."

Some said Aso, who has so far topped his main opposition rival in opinion polls, might call an election in hopes that his relative popularity could turn around the LDP's fortunes.

The gamble would be a big one.

"Unless there is an unexpected godsend, the LDP is going to lose power," Sophia's Nakano said.