TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is on the brink of replacing Yoshito Sengoku as his No. 2 minister, the Asahi newspaper said Wednesday, a sacrificial move intended to clear the way for debate on the 2011/12 budget when parliament opens this month.
Though one of the embattled prime minister’s key allies, Sengoku’s presence is blocking the start of cross-party talks on tax reforms Kan advocates.
The two biggest opposition parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito, have said they will boycott parliamentary business if Sengoku and a government colleague stay on.
The upper house of parliament passed non-binding but embarrassing censure motions against Sengoku and Transport Minister Sumio Mabuchi in November over their handling of a territorial row with China.
Kan’s ruling but unpopular Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) can push bills through parliament, but the opposition parties that control the upper house can block enabling laws, including those needed to implement the budget.
Analysts have said Sengoku’s departure would risk further weakening the government, which is struggling with a sluggish economy and public debt twice the size of its $5 trillion economy, because finding a replacement with suitable clout will be tough.
Still, Kan’s administration is unlikely to suffer a severe setback as Sengoku is expected to carry on playing a key part in supporting the government.
“I expect him to take a high-profile post within the party, and he might even be attending government meetings, bringing the government and the ruling party closer together,” said Tomoaki Iwai, political science professor at Nihon University.
Public support for Kan, who took office last June as Japan’s fifth premier since 2006, rose slightly in a survey published Tuesday, the first rise in four months.
Support for his government rose to 29 percent, up four points from last month, public broadcaster NHK said, in what could be a sign that Kan’s recent counter-offensives including a media blitz are bearing fruit.
But Kan faces numerous hurdles, including how to handle party powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, who faces indictment over a political funding scandal. Ozawa has denied any wrongdoing.
Kan’s efforts to force Ozawa to appear before a parliamentary ethics panel before parliament convenes are likely to top of the agenda at a meeting of Democratic party lawmakers later Wednesday.
Kan will explain his stance on the cabinet reshuffle at a news conference after the Democrats hold their annual convention Thursday, media reports said.
Katsuya Okada, the ruling Democratic Party’s secretary-general, is among the candidates for the chief cabinet secretary’s post but a final decision has not been made, the newspaper said, without citing sources.
As well as Okada, other candidates to replace Sengoku include the Democratic Party’s deputy secretary-general, Yukio Edano, and National Strategy Minister Koichiro Gemba, the newspaper said.
Iwai said Edano might be an ideal replacement for Sengoku as the deputy secretary general, since the former lawyer could support Kan in fielding difficult questions in parliament.
Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Linda Sieg and Daniel Magnowski
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