Page last updated at 14:07 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 15:07 UK

Japanese PM fights for survival

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Tokyo

The Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso
Mr Aso's opponents are calling for him to be replaced

Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso appears to have won the right to jump before he is pushed.

His office said that, in a meeting with senior members of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), he had got their agreement to call an election, expected on 30 August.

It is a last ditch attempt to hold on to power, although all the signs are that the prime minister will receive a monumental drubbing.

Mr Aso's opponents within the party had openly called for him to be ousted.

One called going to the country with him in charge "almost like a mass suicide".

The manoeuvring within the LDP reached its head after disastrous local election results for the prime minister's governing coalition over the weekend.

Voters in Tokyo ended its majority on the Metropolitan Assembly, handing the most seats to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

If such a result were to be repeated nationwide, it would be a sea change in Japanese politics.

The Liberal Democratic Party has governed Japan, alone or in coalition, for more than half a century, except for a break shorter than a year in the early 1990s.

Two smartly-dressed Japanese men read this morning's newspapers in the street
Japanese voters are disenchanted with the governing party

A well-oiled election-winning machine, it has close ties to big business and the bureaucracy, and has enjoyed strong support in rural Japan.

But voters have become increasingly disenchanted.

Japan, which endured a lost decade of stagnation in the 1990s, has more recently been racked by its steepest recession since the end of World War II.

The approval rating for Taro Aso's cabinet is hovering around 20%, according to newspaper opinion polls.

He is perceived as weak, a policy flip-flopper, and his gaffes have not helped.

Sense of drift

The fit Prime Minister managed to offend the elderly - hardly a good idea in grey Japan - by questioning why he should pay taxes for healthcare for people who "just eat and drink and make no effort".

He accused doctors of lacking common sense.

And his public misreading of kanji, one of three scripts in written Japanese, turned a book on how to decipher the characters into a nationwide bestseller.

Taro Aso goes jogging around the Diet building in Tokyo
The energetic Mr Aso even managed to upset the country's elderly

Taro Aso is also the third LDP Prime Minister since the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi stepped down after winning the last elections to the more powerful lower house of parliament in 2005.

There has been a strong sense of drift.

Hoping to capitalise on the disillusionment is the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

It is promising to loosen what it says is a bureaucratic stranglehold on policy making, increase welfare provisions and pay more heed to the needs of consumers and workers.

But the main opposition party is far from cohesive, made up of LDP defectors on the right through to former socialists on the left, and its path to power is not assured.

It must overturn a commanding majority in the lower house enjoyed by the LDP and its coalition partner.

Fundraising scandals have not helped, forcing Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ's leader to resign earlier this year.

His successor, the man who hopes to be Japan's next prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, recently apologised after it emerged individuals listed as his political donors were in fact dead.

As Taro Aso attempts to hold onto power, and endures the embarrassment of an opposition parliamentary motion of no confidence in his cabinet, Japan's Prime Minister must be hoping the DPJ stumbles again.

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