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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

No way out left for Aso, experts say


Staff writer

The resignation of Finance Minister Shoichiro Nakagawa following his disgraceful display in Rome has further weakened Prime Minister Taro Aso and could prove to be the straw that breaks the Cabinet's back, political observers said Tuesday.

News photo
Mutual support: Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa and Prime Minister Taro Aso arrive for a Diet budget committee meeting on Tuesday. KYODO PHOTO

"This is the ultimate blow for the Aso administration," said Surugadai University President and political observer Norihiko Narita in Saitama Prefecture. "And there is no doubt that Aso will be held largely responsible for appointing Nakagawa."

Generous TV footage of the finance and financial services minister, known to be a heavy drinker, shows him slurring his speech, yawning with his eyes closed, and having trouble answering reporters' questions at a news conference that was held Saturday after a Group of Seven finance meeting.

International media pounced on the confused Cabinet minister.

Nakagawa's behavior "is Japan's embarrassment," Narita said. "The world has already given up on the Aso Cabinet."

Amid allegations he was drunk, Nakagawa denied he had been drinking and said his strange behavior was caused by heavy cold medication mixed with a little wine he said he brought to his lips but didn't swallow during a toast at a G7 luncheon before the news conference.

But the damage is already done.

Nakagawa "was the pillar of the Aso Cabinet as the minister of both finance and financial services," Narita said. But "Aso appointed someone who was a known heavy drinker — and it has been widely known that (Nakagawa) cannot manage his health."

Despite harsh criticism from both the ruling and opposition camps, Aso initially defended his close ally and asked him Monday evening to stay on as a Cabinet minister.

Nakagawa had initially announced Tuesday that he would resign after the fiscal 2009 budget and related bills clear the Lower House.

But had Nakagawa stayed on, the opposition would have had more ammunition to use against Aso, making it all the harder for the prime minister to get the budget and other critical legislation passed in the Diet.

"It was impossible from the start to let Nakagawa continue until the fiscal 2009 budget and the related bills pass the Lower House," Narita said.

For Aso and his unpopular Cabinet, revitalizing the economy is of utmost importance, and Nakagawa, who accepted both of the finance portfolios, was the linchpin for any initiatives.

Political analyst Eiken Itagaki speculated that Aso, who is desperately groping for public support, might try reshuffling the deck.

Aso "may try to reshuffle the Cabinet and rebuild the administration, and head for a general election from there," Itagaki said. "The change could be an eye-catcher."

But Narita was not as optimistic. He said the LDP is stuck with Aso, like it or not, but that the Lower House members' terms won't last until September.

"Nobody is going to try and protect Aso now," Narita said.

"Aso won't be able to continue much longer . . . and he is not going to be able to dissolve the Lower House himself," he said.

Narita said LDP members may find Nakagawa's replacement, 70-year-old economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano, who will hold three key Cabinet posts at the same time, as the next candidate for leadership to replace Aso.

"The LDP may have to be ready to face public criticism and change leaders again."

Japan has changed leaders four times in the past three years.



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