(For more stories on Japanese politics click on [ID:nPOLJP])
(Recasts, adds frontrunner for new leader, adds analyst comment)
By Linda Sieg
TOKYO Feb 23 Almost four out of five Japanese
voters want Prime Minister Taro Aso to quit within months and
just over half want the opposition to win power, a poll showed on
Monday, the latest bad news for the ruling party in an election
Public support for 68-year-old Aso, already slumping after
policy flip-flops and gaffes, took another hit when close ally
Shoichi Nakagawa quit as finance minister last week after being
forced to deny he was drunk at a G7 news conference in Rome.
Some in Aso's own conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)
have called for him to be replaced ahead of a general election
that must be held by October, although Japan has already had
three premiers since the last election in 2005.
The new finance minister, 70-year-old Kaoru Yosano was
emerging as a frontrunner to replace Aso, although an analyst
said it was unclear if the LDP would rally around him.
The Mainichi newspaper survey, released on the eve of Aso's
meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on
Tuesday, showed that 39 percent wanted the prime minister to
resign immediately. Another 39 percent said he should step down
after the budget for the fiscal year from April is passed.
Parliament is debating a record 88.5 trillion yen ($947
billion) government budget for the next year as slumping exports
send bankruptcies soaring and the economy into a deepening
The budget is expected to be approved by parliament's lower
house this week and take effect 30 days after that at the latest.
A number of polls have shown the LDP is in danger of being
ousted at the polls, ending more than a half-century of almost
That would usher in a government led by the Democratic Party
of Japan, which has promised to reduce bureaucratic control of
policy and boost Tokyo's diplomatic independence from Washington.
YOSANO AT THE HELM?
Yosano, a fiscal hawk who has shown flexibility about
spending as the recession worsens, added the finance and banking
supervision portfolios to his economics post after Nakagawa quit,
prompting some media to refer to a "de facto Yosano government".
"Yosano is the front runner given the conditions at this
juncture. Basically, they need someone kind of coordinator," said
Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University political science professor.
"He is senior and regarded as a safe pair of hands," Nakano
added. "LDP bosses may think Yosano is a good figure to unite the
party but ... so-called reformers may not find it so easy to fall
in behind him."
Yosano ran neck-and-neck with popular former prime minister
Junichiro Koizumi when voters were asked in a Nikkei business
daily poll whom they saw as best-suited to be premier next.
Both garnered 9 percent, in second place after Democratic
Party leader Ichiro Ozawa with 17 percent. Only four percent of
those surveyed chose Aso.
Koizumi plans to retire from parliament in the next election,
and few if any analysts expect him to stage a comeback.
Yosano could gain support from conservatives who are angling
for a "grand coalition" that would bring the LDP and main
opposition Democratic Party of Japan together to battle a
deepening recession, but the outlook for such a deal is murky at
best given the opposition's rising fortunes.
Fifty-one percent of respondents to the Mainichi survey said
they wanted the Democrats to win the next election, more than
double the 22 percent who opted for the LDP.
The Nikkei survey also had the Democrats well ahead, with 42
percent planned to vote for that party against 26 percent who
favoured the LDP.
The global credit crisis is increasing its grip on Japan.
Smaller smaller businesses that feed parts and services to major
exporters, and employ 70 percent of Japanese workers, are caught
in a squeeze between sliding orders and tightening lending.
A lender to such firms, SFCG Co Ltd 8597.T, failed on
Monday owing $3.6 billion to creditors in the biggest bankruptcy
this year and shares of other non-bank lenders fell sharply.
The Democrats' Ozawa discussed a 'grand coalition" with
then-prime minister Yasuo Fukuda in 2007, but his party roundly
rejected the idea and the proposal was dropped.
(Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Rodney