Fri, Dec 29, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Abe quickly replaces tainted minister

FALLING POLLS Japan's prime minister's ratings have fallen from more than 60 percent to nearly 40 amid scandals and questions about his commitment to reform

AFP , TOKYO

Yoshimi Watanabe, center, is surrounded by reporters upon his arrival at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office in Tokyo yesterday after he was named as the replacement of Genichiro Sata, who resigned as administrative reform minister on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe brought in a new government reformer yesterday as he came under fire after two of his close aides resigned over scandals within days of each other.

With his approval ratings slipping just three months into the job, Abe tapped Yoshimi Watanabe as the new minister for administrative reform.

Genichiro Sata, the former Cabinet member in charge of reforming government services, quit late on Wednesday over misuse of state funds by his supporters.

Watanabe, 54, a senior vice minister in the Cabinet Office and a son of a former foreign minister, said Abe had called him in the middle of the night to offer him the job.

"Because the situation is very serious, I feel heavy, heavy responsibility," Watanabe told reporters.

"The Abe administration's strength is that the team should be able to act strategically. It should be able to work one step at a time," he said.

"But the steps are wobbly now. I believe things will start functioning once the administration rebuilds itself," he said.

Sata's resignation came less than a week after the government's tax policy adviser quit for living with his mistress in a luxurious taxpayer-funded residence.

Sata's political group allegedly received ¥80 million (US$670,000) in government funding between 1990 and 2000 to maintain an office that did not exist.

If the allegations are proven, Sata, who remains a member of parliament and actively supported Abe's rise to prime minister, could face criminal charges.

Abe has watched his poll numbers slip to nearly 40 percent from more than 60 percent after he took the office in late September amid the scandals and questions about his commitment to reforms introduced by his long-serving predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

Major media attacked Abe, who at 52 is Japan's youngest modern prime minister, saying he had rewarded his friends with cabinet appointments.

The liberal Asahi Shimbun said Abe was "seen as rewarding those who helped him most, rather than on looking at their merit."

"Three months after his rise to power, Prime Minister Abe is already in a critical situation," said the Asahi, which has frequently sparred with Abe.

In a brief press conference Wednesday, Sata admitted to accounting errors but denied any wrongdoing, blaming the misuse of funds on his supporters and aides and vowing to stay in parliament.

"Mr. Sata has the responsibility to clarify and explain details of the funds of his political support group rather than just trying to draw the closure on the allegations," the Nihon Keizai Shimbun said in an editorial.

The business newspaper called on Abe to do better to advance reforms, saying his "urgent task is to cut the spiral of problems."

Abe has promised to continue the reforms begun by Koizumi, but he has readmitted to the Liberal Democratic Party dissidents who were expelled by Koizumi for opposing his reformist push.

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