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Japanese leader under pressure to resign

Opposition leaders stepped up pressure today on unpopular Japanese PM Taro Aso to call early elections or step down over his appointment of a finance minister who resigned amid allegations he appeared drunk at a news conference.

world Updated: Feb 20, 2009 01:44 IST

Opposition leaders stepped up pressure on Thursday on unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso to call early elections or step down over his appointment of a finance minister who resigned amid allegations he appeared drunk at a news conference.

Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa resigned on Tuesday over claims he seemed intoxicated during a G-7 news conference, causing a huge embarrassment for Aso and a dealing a blow to the administration's efforts to bolster the ailing economy.

Emboldened opposition leaders said the fiasco highlighted Aso's incompetence as a leader.

"Mr. Aso, you appointed the finance minister who embarrassed himself in front of everyone over his suspected drunkenness," said Naoto Kan, a leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. He accused Aso of flip-flopping by first standing by Nakagawa and then accepting his resignation amid public criticism. "You can't decide anything, and that's why you lose public support," Kan said. "Call elections to get the public mandate, or step down immediately."

Aso's public approval ratings have fallen below 10 percent in a recent poll since he assumed office in September, fed by a deepening economic recession, a series of political gaffes and a perception of weak leadership.

Japan could hardly afford another political or economic misstep. Unemployment is climbing, consumer spending is falling and companies are struggling as the economy contracts at its fastest clip in 35 years.

The prime minister got a bit of good news on Thursday, however. The Asahi, a major newspaper, released results of a survey that showed 30 out of 47 local ruling party chapters said the Liberal Democratic Party should keep Aso until elections are held, rather than sacking him and having another leader take over. Elections must be held for the powerful lower house of parliament by the end of September, but could be called at any time. The opposition does not have the votes needed to force Aso out, enabling him to hold on to power as long as his party backs him. Still, the local support for Aso was lukewarm. The Asahi said many local ruling party leaders supported Aso "reluctantly" because they did not see a viable alternative, or because they felt they had little to gain from Aso's immediate resignation.

Aso's image has taken a blow due to his seeming indecisiveness in dealing with the latest fracas with the finance minister, who is an old friend.

Aso acknowledged that the political confusion was having an impact on much-needed efforts to act quickly to get the world's second-largest economy out of the ditch.

"I apologize for the change of finance ministers when we should be discussing the budget," Aso said at the outset of lower house budget committee meeting on Thursday. He admitted he was responsible for appointing Nakagawa, and said Nakagawa's behavior was "truly regrettable."

At the news conference Saturday following the G-7 finance ministers meeting in Rome, Nakagawa slurred his speech and looked drowsy and confused. He denied he was drunk, blaming cold medicine and jet lag for making him groggy.

Nakagawa had been replaced by Kaoru Yosano, who is also the economy minister.