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Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Friday, 1 August 2008 14:17 UK

Fukuda's rival rises in reshuffle

Taro Aso when he served as Japanese foreign minister (image from 2006)
Taro Aso is a former foreign minister

A main rival to struggling Japanese PM Yasuo Fukuda has assumed a key role in a major cabinet reshuffle.

Taro Aso, 67, has accepted Mr Fukuda's offer to become secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Thirteen out of 17 cabinet posts have been replaced, including finance and economics ministers, but some important positions were unchanged.

The move is being seen as a last-ditch attempt to shore up the government and boost its flagging popularity.

Yasuo Fukuda, 72, retained most of the ministers chosen by his predecessor when he took over last September but the cabinet's approval ratings have fallen below 30% for several months.

The next general election must be held no later than September 2009, and analysts believe Mr Fukuda may seek to draw on Mr Aso's popularity with the public to improve the ruling coalition's chances.

The LDP's secretary general would play a key role in directing the election campaign.

The post is also seen as a launching-board for the prime minister's job itself.

Outcast appointed

In the reshuffle, the economic and fiscal policy portfolio goes to Kaoru Yosano, a veteran politician who has proposed a controversial tax hike to make up for ballooning debt.

What voters want isn't a change of ministers, but a change to policies that will safeguard people's lives
Main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa

The new finance minister is outgoing secretary general Bunmei Ibuki.

Seiko Noda - who was thrown out of the LDP by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi after she opposed plans to privatise the post office - makes a comeback as minister in charge of food safety and consumer issues.

But some important positions are unchanged.

Nobutaka Machimura - as chief cabinet secretary, the government's main spokesman - remains in post, as does Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura.

In a news conference announcing the changes, Mr Machimura denied the reshuffle was just a ploy to buttress popular support for the government.

"It's important to carry out a new strategy to seek economic growth," he said, according to news agency AFP.

"As a cabinet, we are not working just for the sake of approval ratings."

But main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa said the changes would make little difference.

"What voters want isn't a change of ministers, but a change to policies that will safeguard people's lives," AFP quoted him as saying.

"We are determined to change the government in upcoming elections."

Gamble

This is a gamble for Mr Fukuda, says our correspondent in Tokyo, Chris Hogg.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda (image from 11 June 2008)
Mr Fukuda has come under fire for his handling of domestic issues

If they do well then there is a chance they will be able to persuade the electorate the party can be trusted with another term in office, he says.

If, as happened in his predecessor's administration, they become embroiled in scandals or make mistakes, Mr Fukuda will be damaged - in fact probably dealt a blow from which he will not be able to recover, our correspondent adds.

Mr Aso went from being foreign minister to becoming party secretary general under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2007.

However, following Mr Abe's resignation, he left the post and lost the LDP leadership contest to Mr Fukuda soon afterwards.

Known for his conservative views, he has advocated a tough line towards North Korea and rejects changing the law to allow women to ascend the throne.

He is also seen as a charismatic figure who is known to love Japanese manga cartoons.

By contrast, Mr Fukuda's approval rating has fallen dramatically amid rows over lost pension records and a new compulsory health insurance scheme for the elderly.




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