Key members of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Cabinet rallied around their unpopular leader yesterday, brushing off calls from the opposition that he step down and saying Japan must put politics aside and unite behind stimulus measures to bolster its teetering economy.
Aso has been battered by low public support ratings, a dogged opposition that has called him incompetent and the resignation this week of his finance minister amid allegations he was intoxicated at a news conference following last week’s G7 summit in Rome.
The prime minister’s troubles have fueled demands he resign and hold elections for the lower house of parliament to prove his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party still has the mandate of the voters. Recent polls indicate that if such elections were held now, Aso’s party would suffer major losses.
In an attempt to quell the criticism, several of Aso’s top Cabinet members expressed their support for him yesterday and said political squabbling should not be allowed to derail important bills aimed at reviving Japan’s stagnating economy.
“These are difficult times,” Reform Minister Akira Amari said. “But we should unite to see our stimulus measures enacted.”
“This is no time to be talking about dissolving parliament,” Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said.
Calls by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan for elections have dogged Aso since shortly after he took office in September.
Elections for the lower house do not need to be held until October, but can be called at any time.
Aso, who is to visit Washington next week to meet US President Barack Obama, has said that he wants to focus on policy — and stay in office — until budget-related bills are passed. That is expected in late April.
Although the Democrats have increasing public support for their demands that Aso step aside, they do not have the numbers in parliament to force him out.
Despite the comments yesterday by his senior Cabinet ministers, Aso’s support within his own party appears to be eroding.
In the most serious blow, popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi sternly criticized Aso last week and threatened not to support his stimulus plans.
Koizumi’s open dissent sent a shockwave through the party and added to fears among many of its lawmakers that unless Aso resigns or somehow improves his approval ratings, it will hurt them when elections are eventually held.
The state of the economy is also rapidly worsening.
This week, Japan announced its economy shrank at the fastest rate in 35 years in the fourth quarter of last year. It has now contracted for three straight quarters and is almost certainly headed for a fourth. To revive growth, a contentious ¥4.8 trillion (US$52.2 billion) extra budget was proposed that includes a cash payout of ¥12,000 (US$133) to each taxpayer.
Aso has backed the idea, saying it would stimulate sagging consumer spending, but it has been widely criticized as ineffective.
The cash handout and other stimulus measures are still being debated.
“If elections were held now, the ruling party would fail miserably,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a politics professor at Hokkaido University. “But it doesn’t matter who their leader is — they are falling apart.”