Page last updated at 23:40 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 00:40 UK

Gaffe-prone Japan PM struggling

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Tokyo

Taro Aso, pictured 21 July 2009
Taro Aso apologised for mistakes he has made in office

He put a brave face on it, walking up to the podium and bowing stiffly before he began the news conference.

But even some in his own Liberal Democratic Party fear Japan's Prime Minister, Taro Aso, is leading them to a historic defeat.

He is asking for more time in power. But he began by saying sorry for past mistakes.

"There might have been some inappropriate comments I made that might have led to the lowering of the support of the people of Japan," he said.

"And within our party, the solidarity was lacking and that might have been because of my lack of leadership. And there might have been Japanese people who were not very comfortable about my leadership, and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise."

Mr Aso, who is known for gaffes that have offended people from doctors to the elderly, was speaking after he dissolved the lower house of Japan's Diet, or parliament.

He hopes the general election at the end of August will be about the economy, and security.

He insists he can deliver on both.

Rise from the ashes

But the campaign threatens to be more about whether the Liberal Democratic Party's time is up.

The party has governed Japan for more than half a century, except for a break of less than a year in the early 1990s.

For much of that time the story of Japan was its rise from the ashes of World War II to economic might.

But times have changed.

Japan is now mired in a recession, and that is on top of a decade of stagnation in the 1990s.

"The LDP has nothing to run on, their record is miserable, they've done nothing to alleviate the soaring misery index," says Jeff Kingston of Temple University in Tokyo.

Taro Aso is the third prime minister since the popular Junichiro Koizumi stepped down after winning the last election for the lower house in 2005 on a platform of reform.

"The voters gave Koizumi an overwhelming mandate and they didn't do anything. In the meantime the economy is falling off a cliff and unemployment is soaring," says Jeff Kingston.

Hoping to take power in the next election is Yukio Hatoyama, of the Democratic Party of Japan - like Mr Aso, the heir to a political dynasty.

Yukio Hatayama, pictured 21 July 2009
Yukio Hatayama of the DPJ has already faced embarrassment

His grandfather replaced Taro Aso's grandfather as prime minister in the 1950s.

History could be about to repeat itself.

Mr Hatoyama's party is promising reforms, including strengthening social welfare and wrestling control of policy-making from what it says is an over mighty bureaucracy.

The DPJ is well ahead in the opinion polls, and perhaps Taro Aso's greatest hope of surviving in office is if the opposition stumbles before election day.

In May, Ichiro Ozawa stepped down as the leader of the DPJ amid a political fundraising scandal.

His successor - Mr Hatoyama - has already been embarrassed after it emerged some people listed as his donors were dead.

"It would have to be hugely dramatic, something way out of the ordinary to derail the DPJ express," says Jeff Kingston of Temple University.

"The DPJ has a long history of self-inflicted wounds, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but it would have to be something truly extraordinary for them to blow it."

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