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Woes mount for Japan's ruling party

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe struggles to contain outrage over Cabinet officials' comments, and the perception that his government is adrift.

February 05, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Japan's ruling party concluded another rocky week in office Sunday by losing a high-profile mayoral race and winning a regional governor's election by a closer-than-expected margin, a rebuke from voters for an administration increasingly seen as clumsy and adrift.

The setback came as Liberal Democratic Party politicians continued the loose-lipped habits that have given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 4-month-old government a reputation for lacking discipline.

Abe is struggling to protect Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa amid a torrent of calls for his resignation after he referred to women of child-bearing age as "birth machines" during a Jan. 27 speech on Japan's low birthrate.

Opposition parties want Yanagisawa fired and are boycotting parliamentary debates while they wait, a move designed to inflict as much embarrassment on Abe as possible.

The prime minister is anxious to avoid another forced resignation after one Cabinet minister and the powerful head of the government's tax commission stepped down in December after separate scandals.

Abe reprimanded Yanagisawa for the comments but said the health minister would keep his job.

Yanagisawa is not the only one to give the prime minister headaches.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Taro Aso called the Bush administration's handling of the Iraqi occupation "very naive," the second time in recent days that a senior Cabinet member had chastised the United States over its policy on Iraq.

Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma recently called the decision to go to war in Iraq "wrong" and accused Washington of being heavy-handed in talks about relocating U.S. military bases on Okinawa.

The criticism from an ally struck a nerve in the Bush administration and unleashed a debate here about the wisdom of offending the country Japan depended upon for its security.

The succession of gaffes and conflicting messages has hurt Abe's poll numbers and spawned speculation that his leadership is threatened.

A Mainichi News poll released over the weekend showed the prime minister's support down 27 percentage points since he took office in September.

The challenge to Abe comes not so much from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which is weak and disorganized, but from fissures and ongoing power struggles in the governing party. Some senior party members, including legislators from the upper house of parliament who face elections this summer, have joined the chorus of condemnation that has followed Yanagisawa's comments.

The summer legislative election is being billed as a make-or-break moment for Abe.

The prime minister also has been hurt by the flat reaction from the public to his core theme of making Japan a "beautiful country," a vague appeal to restoring national pride. Voters appear more interested in hearing what the government plans to do about issues such as stagnant wages, which are holding back consumer confidence and preventing the country from breaking out of its long economic slumber.

Abe appears to still have time to impose discipline and governing priorities on his party.

The question is whether the Liberal Democratic Party, accustomed to being reined in by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi but apparently giddy with freedom since he retired, is prepared to stay focused long enough to give Abe that chance.

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