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Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008

Fukuda: No midmonth reshuffling of Cabinet

Staff writer

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda dismissed speculation Friday that he would reshuffle his Cabinet before the Diet opens later this month to shore up his poor public approval ratings.

"Honestly speaking, all of the Cabinet ministers are truly tackling the policies with all their might," Fukuda said at his first news conference of the year. "After various considerations, I would like the current Cabinet ministers to continue" with their jobs.

Fukuda and his Cabinet have been harshly criticized for the pension-record and Defense Ministry scandals, and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been calling for a reshuffle to remove the last vestiges of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet. The beleaguered conservative hawk abruptly resigned in September.

At the end of December, during his visit to China, Fukuda told reporters he would keep an open mind toward reshuffling the Cabinet in the new year. Later reports said Fukuda would do it in mid-January before the Diet opens.

"I don't know whose practical joke it was, but I think the (media reports) went against my intentions," Fukuda said. "What I said was that (everything) was still a blank sheet of paper — including the possibility of reshuffling the Cabinet, or not."

Touching on pressing policy issues, Fukuda promised to act on and resolve each problem, from fake labeling of food products to social security.

"I would like to make this year the start of (a society) in which the people and the consumers play the center role," Fukuda said, adding politicians and the government must drastically change their way of thinking and assume a more public- and consumer-oriented viewpoint.

One example is the pension-records debacle, which has left 50 million pension premium records unidentified and thus altered payouts for millions of people, Fukuda said.

"Not only the government, but politicians as well were at fault because (we) were in the position of supervising (the government)," Fukuda said. "As a politician, I offer a straightforward apology."

Fukuda said there is no magic remedy for the pension record-keeping debacle, whose origins can be traced back 40 years, but he promised to develop the best pension system possible.

"It is my intention to earnestly keep addressing (the pension issue) until the Cabinet finds a way to resolve the 40 years of failure," Fukuda said. He also said a special panel on social security, including politicians, bureaucrats and the public, will be set up this month with an eye to issuing a final report in the fall.

With the divided Diet generating a legislative stalemate, political analysts speculate Fukuda will be forced to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election sometime this year.

Only the prime minister has the sole right to dissolve the lower chamber and call a snap election, but Fukuda dodged the issue and refused to say if or when he might do this.

But he did not dismiss the idea of a "grand coalition" between his LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan, whose leader, Ichiro Ozawa, turned down the proposal in November after consulting his deputies.

"Whether (I would ask the DPJ to) form a grand coalition solely depends on whether we can create a system in which we will be able to carry out our policies," Fukuda said.

Having lost its majority in the Upper House as well as its position as the Diet's top party, the LDP and coalition partner New Komeito were forced to extend the extraordinary Diet session twice in order to pass the revamped antiterrorism bill.

The bill, expected to be approved by the Diet before the extraordinary session ends Jan. 15, will allow the Maritime Self-Defense Force to resume its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of multinational naval ships engaged in counterterrorism operations.

"Even now, many countries are cooperating with one another to fight the war on terrorism in the Indian Ocean," Fukuda said. The activities "are preventing terrorists from invading and spreading in Afghanistan."

Fukuda also repeated his view that a permanent law is needed to allow the government to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces abroad for peacekeeping activities more quickly and easily.

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The Japan Times

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