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Japan PM Names New Minister Amid Pension Furore

Reuters
Friday, 1 Jun 2007 | 1:25 AM ET

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe named a new farm minister on Friday, four days after a scandal-tainted predecessor committed suicide, as opposition parties turned the heat up over mismanaged pensions and scandals.

Voter anger over mishandling of millions of pension records, coupled with the minister's suicide, has dealt Abe a blow ahead of a July election for parliament's upper house that will be his first big test at the polls since he took office last September.

Abe tapped Norihiko Akagi to head the ministry where he once worked as a bureaucrat after the suicide of Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who had been linked to several political funding scandals.

Akagi, 48, comes from a political family and his grandfather was also a farm minister.

"I feel the weight of my job, which comes on the heels of the unfortunate incident involving Agriculture Minister Matsuoka and at a time when Japan's farm and fisheries policies are in a major transitional period," Akagi told reporters.

In the early hours of Friday, following a marathon session, Abe's ruling coalition pushed laws through the lower house aimed at resolving problems over what media have dubbed the "vanished pensions", despite fierce resistance by the opposition.

"The people's anger over the 'vanished pensions' is growing," Yoshiaki Takagai, an executive with the main opposition Democratic Party, told reporters. "The situation is insane ... The government and the ruling bloc is rushing to pass bills, not caring about their content," Takagi said, adding that the Abe government was keen to show "results" ahead of the July polls.

The pensions issue has prompted a slump in Abe's public support rates to their lowest levels since he took office, the latest newspaper polls showed, with one indicating only 32% of the electorate support him.

Arguing that more debate over the bills was needed, the opposition had submitted no-confidence motions against a minister and other ruling bloc officials, but they were defeated because of the ruling camp's majority in the lower house.

Debate over the bills -- one aimed at helping retirees whose records were mixed up by officials to recover payments, and another to overhaul the Social Insurance Agency, which manages the pension system -- now moves to the upper house.

Abe also wants parliament, whose session ends on June 23, to enact a bill to reform the civil service and cut the cozy ties among politicians, bureaucrats and companies that have long been a source of scandals.

That effort is likely to escalate confrontation with the opposition, which has threatened to take similar measures as they did with the pension bills to prevent its passage.

Voter distrust in the creaking pension system has proved an Achilles' heel for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the past.

The Democrats won more seats than the LDP in the last upper house election three years ago after revelations that several cabinet ministers had failed to pay into the national pension plan.

A defeat in the July election would not automatically force Abe to resign, but would reduce his clout and likely prompt calls from within the LDP for him to be replaced.

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