Abe reshuffles cabinet in bid to regain support

Posted in Japan | 27-Aug-07 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, listens to Foreign Minister Taro Aso.

TOKYO: Japan's prime minister appointed experienced conservatives to top Cabinet and ruling party posts Monday in a reshuffle aimed at bolstering support following a crushing defeat in elections last month.

Support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has plunged in recent months over a spate of gaffes and scandals involving key ministers, culminating in a humiliating setback at parliamentary polls on July 29.

Abe, who took office in September, was under pressure to appoint capable, scandal-free ministers and give his government a greater air of authority.

His lineup included veteran Nobutaka Machimura, 62, who becomes foreign minister, a post he held under Junichiro Koizumi, Abe's predecessor. Former justice and foreign minister Masahiko Komura, 65, returned as defense chief.

"I believe Prime Minister Abe made appointments of those who can firmly assume their expected duties," newly appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano — also a ruling party heavyweight — told a news conference after announcing the new Cabinet.

"I don't believe there is any magical way to immediately restore support in the Cabinet, but I hope to make steady efforts to strengthen government accountability," Yosano said.

Both Machimura and Komura should fit easily with Abe's right-leaning, pro-U.S. government: under Koizumi, Machimura pushed to phase out development aid to China, while Komura supports a hard-line against North Korea.

"The U.S.-Japan relationship remains the cornerstone of our foreign policy," Machimura told reporters after his appointment. He added he would work to extend Japan's mission to refuel coalition warships in the Indian Ocean to support U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan.

Machimura also vowed to pressure North Korea to come clean on its abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fukushiro Nukaga, 63, a former defense minister and supporter of a joint missile defense with the United States, was appointed to lead the Finance Ministry. He would replace Koji Omi.

The new ministers were to be officially sworn in by Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace later Monday.

Abe also made key changes in the leadership of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, moving his conservative foreign minister, Taro Aso, to LDP secretary-general, the No. 2 post. He also filled two other top LDP posts in a bid to rejuvenate the troubled ruling party.

"The important task for the LDP is to regain the public trust and to address the people's concerns about the future," Aso told reporters.

Abe's government has been riddled with scandals and missteps. Three of Abe's ministers have been forced to resign, and one committed suicide amid a money scandal.

The July 29 elections for the upper house of parliament were a disaster for his government, with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan seizing control of the chamber. Abe, however, has clung to power because the LDP controls the more powerful lower house.

Abe — at 52 the youngest postwar Japanese premier — has resisted calls for his resignation from the opposition and even within his own party, vowing to push through reforms.

"Abe is bolstering his defenses by surrounding himself with experienced politicians who won't make blunders," said political analyst Eiken Itagaki.

Komura was to replace Yuriko Koike, the first woman to become defense minister in Japan. Koike, who recently announced she would not seek to retain her job, took up the portfolio last month after her predecessor, Fumio Kyuma, resigned over remarks suggesting that the U.S. atomic bombings in Japan at the end of World War II were unavoidable.

Earlier this month, Agriculture Minister Norihiko Akagi resigned to take responsibility for the election defeat in July. He had become embroiled in an accounting scandal.

Akagi's predecessor, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, killed himself in May amid allegations he also misused public money. In December, a reform minister resigned over allegations of misusing political funds.