Fri, Feb 20, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Aso apologizes as minister goes

UNDER FIRE Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso was grilled by opposition lawmakers and faced criticism from his own party as his approval rating fell to below 10 percent

AFP , TOKYO

Embattled Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso apologized yesterday for the finance minister, who resigned after appearing drunk at a press conference, a debacle that triggered a political firestorm.

Aso, facing a grilling by opposition lawmakers, has also come under attack from his own party members, including popular former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and a junior legislator who publicly urged Aso to step down.

Aso, whose approval ratings dipped below 10 percent in a poll this week, and who faces elections by September, shouldered responsibility for the crisis triggered by former finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa.

“I truly regret that while parliament is deliberating budget bills, the finance minister in charge of them had to be replaced,” Aso said.

“I understand that the former minister stepped down not because of a lack of capability but because of his health problem,” he said.

“The responsibility for appointing him as a Cabinet minister resides with me, of course,” Aso told the lower house budget committee.

Nakagawa blamed cold medicine for his incoherent replies and drowsy appearance at a G7 press conference in Rome, an episode that has been repeatedly broadcast by Japanese television stations.

The political blunder piled further pressure on Aso, already unpopular for a series of gaffes, policy flip-flops and proposed cash handouts that have been criticized as economically ineffective and populist measures.

The main opposition group — the Democratic Party of Japan, which sees a chance of ending the conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) almost uninterrupted half-century reign — has threatened a symbolic censure motion against Aso.

Even junior LDP lawmaker Masazumi Gotoda on Wednesday openly called on the 68-year-old prime minister to step down.

“I want Prime Minister Aso to make a decision on his course of action by himself and, if possible, hand over the post to younger generations,” he said.

Former prime minister Koizumi — still influential after serving as a reformist LDP prime minister from 2001 to 2006 — has criticized and openly defied Aso.

A rift emerged between them after Aso this month spoke out against one of Koizumi’s flagship reform drives — a plan to break up the massive and monopolistic post office, which many rural voters use as a bank.

Koizumi on Wednesday threatened to boycott a Diet vote if Aso’s coalition forces passage of a bill to implement the controversial cash handouts.

Aso, who has championed the bill as a key economic stimulus plan, told the Diet committee that “the intention of his remark is beyond my comprehension.”

“As long as he is a parliament member of the Liberal Democratic Party, I need him to abide by party policy,” Aso said of Koizumi.

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