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Japan PM facing cabinet reshuffle to revamp image

TOKYO (Reuters) - Wanted: Attractive, squeaky-clean new Japanese cabinet with enough experience to reassure voters worried about pensions system chaos. Ability to steer clear of gaffes required.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe smiles before his meeting with Indian President Pratibha Patil (not in picture) at the presidential palace in New Delhi on August 22, 2007. Abe's planned cabinet reshuffle on August 27 is crucial to restoring his sagging popularity, a month after anger over lost pension premiums, corruption scandals and gaffes led to an election drubbing that cost his coalition control of parliament's upper house. REUTERS/B Mathur

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s planned cabinet reshuffle on August 27 is crucial to restoring his sagging popularity, a month after anger over lost pension premiums, corruption scandals and gaffes led to an election drubbing that cost his coalition control of parliament’s upper house.

Putting together a team capable of restoring his popularity and overshadowing the now powerful opposition Democratic Party will be no easy task for the 52-year-old conservative.

But failure to come up with a winning combination could force Abe, already lagging badly in the polls, from office.

“On the one hand, he has to appoint ministers who will be popular with the people,” said Koichi Nakano, politics professor at Sophia University. “On the other hand, given what happened with his prior cabinet, he has to make sure no one is caught in wrongdoings with political funds.”

Media say Abe will have to replace almost all of his aides, including his 74-year-old finance minister, to mark a fresh start after barely clinging to his own post following the election.

That could mean including rivals to his leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) or even, some analysts say, enticing a member of the opposition to defect.

PENSIONS PRIORITY

Forming a strong team to clear up the pensions mess will be a top priority, and co-opting a member of the opposition Democratic Party to help would go down well with voters reluctant to see the issue become a political football, some analysts say.

“The Democrats would then be forced to cooperate, because they don’t want to be seen as only capable of criticising,” said political analyst Harumi Arima.

The country’s biggest-circulation daily, the Yomiuri Shimbun, even suggested in a recent editorial that Abe should consider a coalition with the Democrats to avoid policy gridlock now that opposition parties dominate the upper house.

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But with the Democrats in an unprecedentedly strong political position, few may want to be seen as rescuing the ruling party.

Abe’s concept of “building a beautiful nation” failed to attract voters more concerned about their pocket-books than his push to teach patriotism in schools, revise the constitution and boost Japan’s profile on the world stage.

But abandoning that programme completely would alienate his right-wing support base within the LDP.

Among close party allies, Abe is planning to make hawkish Foreign Minister Taro Aso his LDP second in command, reports say.

In a further sign that Abe may not abandon his conservative agenda, reports say there could also be jobs for two ideological soul mates, former foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura and former trade minister Shoichi Nakagawa.

The finance ministry could go to committed fiscal reformer Kaoru Yosano, a former economics minister, Kyodo news agency said. That would give fresh impetus to economics in a government some see as having stalled on reform since Abe took over.

However, Yosano is known to support an increase in consumption tax to help reduce the country’s debt mountain, and that would be highly unpopular with the electorate.

Abe was criticised for packing his first cabinet with cronies with little policy-making experience, some of whom tarnished his image with gaffes and financial scandals.

Pressure to bring LDP rivals such as former top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda into the fold to broaden his support in the party may be ignored.

He might instead favour upper house member Yoichi Masuzoe, who has criticised Abe but backs many of his policies, Kyodo said.

DEFENCE HEADACHE

Yuriko Koike, who became the country’s first woman defence minister in July after her predecessor resigned for suggesting the 1945 U.S. atomic attacks on Japan were inevitable, presents Abe with a particular headache.

A public row involving Koike and her ministry’s top bureaucrat brought renewed criticism of Abe’s administration, but firing her soon after high-profile trips to the United States, India and Pakistan might look odd.

“It would be a brave decision to retain a minister who has damaged relations with defence bureaucrats to such a level,” Yomiuri political editor Koichi Akaza said in a column this week.

Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, was known for a deft touch with voter-pleasing cabinet surprises.

In a bid to mimic that effect, some analysts say Abe could pick journalist and right-wing commentator Yoshiko Sakurai as a fresh face from outside politics.

“Abe may face calls for an early resignation if the reshuffle goes wrong,” said Sophia University’s Nakano. But the LDP is seen likely to try to hold off a general election for at least a year, to try to rebuild its position.

“An election now would be suicide for the LDP,” said Arima.

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