Japan PM faces party rebellion; no-confidence vote looms

TOKYO Wed Jun 1, 2011 5:18am EDT

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan attends a special committee on post-quake reconstruction at the lower house in Tokyo May 31, 2011. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan attends a special committee on post-quake reconstruction at the lower house in Tokyo May 31, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese ruling party rebels on Wednesday claimed to have enough votes to back a no-confidence vote against embattled Prime Minister Naoto Kan but analysts said he would probably survive, albeit weakened and with a deeply divided party.

Japan's fifth premier in as many years, Kan has struggled to deal with the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years and to push through policies to resolve deep-seated economic woes, with one ratings agency saying the intense political feuding could help force a downgrade in the country's sovereign debt.

The opposition is expected to vote on the no-confidence motion in parliament's lower house on Thursday and would need the backing of around 70 lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to succeed, something many analysts said looked too much of a stretch.

But independent analyst Minoru Morita said the tide was running against the premier.

"The number of DPJ rebels is growing," he said.

Even if Kan does scrape through, analysts said it would still be an uphill struggle to win support for major policies, including funding steps for an extra budget to pay for the massive rebuilding costs after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

NHK public TV said scandal-tainted powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, the prime minister's main rival in the DPJ, intended to vote for the motion. And an Ozawa ally told Reuters the rebels could have enough votes to adopt it, which would force Kan to resign or call a snap lower house election.

Kan has refused to quit, saying he needs to continue his work to help resolve the nuclear crisis. But he has not ruled out an election even though a growing number of voters would like him to step down, although not necessarily right now.

Critics within his party want Kan to quit before the no-confidence vote to clear the way for a new leader who could form a coalition with the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to break a parliamentary logjam.

"I think at the moment we have enough votes and that it's more likely that the motion will pass," Ozawa ally, Kenko Matsuki, told Reuters.

"But we want to find a way until the very end for Mr. Kan to take the decisive step, to resign on his own, so that we can prevent that from happening."

Media said two Ozawa allies were set to resign their junior cabinet posts to vote against Kan.

OLIVE BRANCH

The Asahi newspaper said more than 50 backers of Ozawa, who has been charged over a funding scandal, would support the no-confidence motion.

That is short of the more than 70 DPJ votes needed to secure passage of the motion in the 480-member lower house, where the Democrats have 305 seats.

Kan, who took office last June, is struggling to control the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima atomic plant, pay for rebuilding the northeast region devastated by the tsunami, and craft tax reforms to pay for rising social security costs.

The U.N.'s nuclear power agency, the IAEA, criticized Japan's reaction to the crisis, saying officials underestimated the risks.

In a parliamentary debate with LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki -- off to an inauspicious start when Kan referred to his rival as "premier" -- Kan urged the LDP to cooperate in the national crisis. Tanigaki replied that the prime minister would have to quit first.

"For the sake of rebuilding Japan, first, we must change leaders," Tanigaki said. "If you quit, we can create all sorts of new formats that supersede party lines."

The premier held out an olive branch by suggesting a parliament session set to end on June 22 could be extended -- something his critics have demanded to discuss a second extra budget to fund the next phase of rebuilding from the tsunami.

The reconstruction project will be Japan's biggest such endeavor since the early post-World War Two era.

The government also needs to get parliament to enact a bill enabling the issuance of more bonds to finance 44 percent of the $1 trillion budget for the fiscal year already begun in April.

Kan's cabinet is, in addition, trying to finalize this month proposals for social security and tax reforms -- including a likely doubling of the 5 percent sales tax in stages by 2015.

Moody's Investors Service said on Tuesday that Japan might not be able to avoid a downgrade of its sovereign debt rating even if it presented a strong reform plan, in part because of concerns over political feuding.

(Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

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