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Japan PM Promotes Rival, Dumps Finance Minister

Struggling Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will appoint popular rival Taro Aso in a key ruling party post and replace his finance minister, Japanese media said, as part of a shake up aimed at boosting his support among voters.

Newly elected President of the Liberal Democratic Party Yasuo Fukuda smiles while sitting in the presidential chair at the party's headquarters in Tokyo, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007. Moderate veteran Fukuda easily won election as Japan's ruling party president Sunday, pledging to improve ties with Asia, keep a pro-U.S. foreign policy and uplift rural areas when he becomes prime minister later this week. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye, Pool)
Itsuo Inouye
Newly elected President of the Liberal Democratic Party Yasuo Fukuda smiles while sitting in the presidential chair at the party's headquarters in Tokyo, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007. Moderate veteran Fukuda easily won election as Japan's ruling party president Sunday, pledging to improve ties with Asia, keep a pro-U.S. foreign policy and uplift rural areas when he becomes prime minister later this week. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye, Pool)

Fukuda, whose ratings are languishing around 25 percent amid complaints that he is indecisive, will tap current party secretary-general and former finance ministry bureaucrat Bunmei Ibuki for finance minister, private broadcaster NTV said.

Fukuda probably wants to draw on Aso's popularity to improve the ruling bloc's chances in a general election that must be held by September 2009 and could well come sooner, analysts said.

But a new line-up, which Japanese media said would probably see Fukuda replace more than half of his cabinet, was unlikely to end speculation over a snap election and could leave unclear the direction of policy as the global credit crisis hits the economy.

Ibuki earlier told reporters that Fukuda wanted the new cabinet to tackle the economic pain from high commodity prices.

"As we are facing difficulty with the direction of the economy, including rising raw material prices, although there are relatively few Japan-led factors, we need to address this issue," he said. "Also, we need to restructure the country's economic system in response to structural changes from an aging society and a declining birthrate."

Campaign Strategy

Fukuda wants to erase doubts about his leadership skills and boost the low ratings that threaten his grip on power after just 10 months in office, although a delay in deciding on the reshuffle has reinforced charges of indecisiveness.

A revamped cabinet, however, would not alter the reality in parliament, where a feisty opposition controls the upper house and has made no secret of its desire for an early poll in hopes of ousting Fukuda's long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Aso would become the LDP's secretary general while Nobutaka Machimura would retain the key post of chief cabinet secretary, Kyodo news agency said.

As secretary general, the party's No. 2 figure, the outspoken Aso would play a vital role in setting election campaign strategy.

"This reshuffle is the first opportunity to show 'Fukuda color'," the Nikkei business daily said in an editorial. "The biggest question is whether he can clarify his policy objectives and create a set-up to face the next general election."

Speculation is simmering that Fukuda -- or his successor -- might go to the polls earlier to seek a mandate to break the parliamentary deadlock that is stymying policies from security to welfare and tax reform.

Fukuda may keep Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, but under a different portfolio, the Nikkei said, while media have also said Fukuda could draft more women to try to please female voters.