Japan PM under pressure to quit

TOKYO: Japan's beleaguered Prime Minister Taro Aso on Thursday faced signs of a brewing cabinet revolt as lawmakers demanded the ruling party meet to decide his fate ahead of next month's general election.

Dissidents in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) submitted signatures from 133 lawmakers to party executives on Thursday, requesting a meeting of members from both houses of parliament, an LDP official said.

The signatures included some of Aso's own cabinet ministers -- Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Shigeru Ishiba -- although neither has said publicly they want Aso to resign.

"I frankly told the prime minister that the LDP would be badly hurt (in the general election) if we don't come up with measures to break this situation," Yosano said after meeting with Aso late Wednesday.

The best-selling Yomiuri Shimbun quoted an anonymous source close to Yosano as saying that the minister had met Aso to "urge him to step down voluntarily."

Aso's party risks being swept from power in next month's election after half a century of almost unbroken rule as voters turn to the opposition amid anger over his gaffes, handling of the economy and policy flip-flops.

The 68-year-old premier, whose party suffered a heavy defeat in a Tokyo city election at the weekend, announced Monday that he would dissolve parliament next week for a national vote on August 30.

Some of those who are in favour of holding a party meeting want to discuss a recent series of defeats in local elections but others want to go further and demand the party hold a leadership election to replace Aso, local media said.

The signatures were gathered by senior lawmakers led by Hidenao Nakagawa, who has urged Aso to "make an honourable decision".

The petition was aimed at "summing up the reasons why we lost local elections and having serious debate on how to make a comeback towards the upcoming general election," Nakagawa told reporters.

He said the petitioners wanted to hold the plenary meeting "urgently, possibly within this week."

LDP secretary-general Hiroyuki Hosoda said the party leadership would "urgently consider" holding a meeting, he added.

Under party rules, the LDP must hold a general meeting of its members of parliament within a week if more than one-third of them demand it. The threshold currently stands at 128.

However, it is not clear if the meeting will go ahead because Aso is poised to dissolve the lower house of parliament on Tuesday.

Lawmakers lose their status upon dissolution, meaning they no longer have the authority to demand a meeting.

Aso has been defiant in the face of resignation calls after surviving a no-confidence vote Tuesday in the lower house, which is controlled by the ruling coalition.

"I will speak as the prime minister who won (the party's) confidence" if the meeting is held, he said late Wednesday.

Aso, Japan's third premier since the popular Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006, took office in late September with a mission to revive the LDP, but his public approval ratings have slipped below 20 percent in recent surveys.

Tsutomu Takebe, another party senior calling for Aso's resignation, said on Wednesday that Aso's "many flip-flops have disappointed people."

"The prime minister has no heart to feel shame," he added.

Many observers believe the opposition would prefer Aso to stay on as leader because his unpopularity will boost its chances of winning the vote.