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The top government spokesman on Friday rushed to play down a suggestion by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that he was backing U.S. President George W. Bush ahead of the Nov. 2 election.

The eyebrow-raising remark was made Thursday evening, when reporters asked the prime minister about media polls showing Democratic candidate John Kerry coming out on top after the last televised debate.

“I don’t want to interfere in an election in a foreign country, but I’d like President Bush to hang in there because he’s a close friend,” said Koizumi, who is known as a staunch Bush ally.

The remark was promptly slammed by opposition lawmakers as interference in the domestic affairs of the United States and a diplomatic faux pas that could affect future bilateral ties.

“What (Koizumi) said is not appropriate, both in terms of (the rules of) democracy and diplomacy,” Yoshio Hachiro, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, told a regular news conference on Friday.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, however, stressed during a regular news conference on Friday that the prime minister was not saying he wanted either of the two to win.

“No matter what the results of the election may bring, the firm ties between the U.S. and Japan will remain unshakable,” he said.

But fuel was added to the fire later Friday, when Tsutomu Takebe, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, said it would be problematic if Kerry were to beat Bush.

“It would mean trouble if (the winner) is not President Bush,” Takebe told a Nippon Broadcasting System radio show. “Mr. Kerry is trying to address the North Korean problem bilaterally. That is totally out of the question.”

While praising Bush’s policy of seeking a resolution to the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions through multilateral dialogue, the LDP’s No. 2 man also said, “We are in an era of multilateralism, and issues on Iraq should also be dealt with” multilaterally.

But asked Friday evening about what he thought of Takebe’s remarks, Koizumi said, “You shouldn’t interfere in a foreign country’s election.”

He said the U.S. would “calmly judge” his comments and that “only certain media” would interpret his or Takebe’s comments as being problematic.

On-the-record comments by top Japanese politicians regarding election campaigns in other countries, while uncommon, are not without precedent.

In 1992, then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa was roundly criticized when he described TV commentator Pat Buchanan, then vying with incumbent George Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, as a candidate who was unlikely to win at the national level.

Asked if Koizumi could become “close friends” with Kerry should the senator win, Hosoda responded: “Of course.

“But we’d like to refrain from discussing the topic itself at this stage because the election is so close and it’s up to the judgment of American citizens, after all.”

Information from Kyodo added

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