Friday’s passage of the fiscal 2009 budget and related bills through the Lower House was bittersweet for Prime Minister Taro Aso, who still faces the dilemma of when to call a general election.

Amid the global financial crisis, Aso repeatedly stressed he was prioritizing approval of the budget and implementation of various economic measures, and everything else — including a general election that must be held by fall — would have to wait.

But now, with the budget set to clear the Diet by the end of March, Aso must turn his attention to improving his sinking support rate and the timing of the Lower House poll.

“The passage of the budget is an absolute necessity for the Aso Cabinet,” said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University. “And when that is done, Aso thinks he can dissolve the Lower House.”

Political analysts and insiders, however, doubt the once popular Aso will be able to regain enough public support for his Liberal Democratic Party to win an election, and believe moves by the LDP to replace him before a poll are likely to intensify.

Various LDP lawmakers have already begun to openly state a new leader is necessary. Ex-LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe said Friday morning the party will likely choose a new president before the next general election.

“I do feel we are responsible for supporting the Aso administration because we chose Aso in the presidential election, but I think we will be facing the next general election with a new leader,” Takebe said. “We cannot manage a government that does not have public trust . . . and creating a new LDP under a new leader has become an urgent matter for us.”

But if the LDP were to change leaders again, this would result in the country having a fifth prime minister since the last Lower House general election in 2005, when the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition won a landslide victory under then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The four-year term for the House of Representatives expires in September, which is also when the LDP president’s term expires. So whether Aso is still in charge by then or has been replaced, the party must hold another presidential election.

“I think it is less out of place to wait until the end of the term to change presidents,” Sone said. “Even if the LDP tries to be cunning and changes its leader in May, the people know better now and will see through it.”

Another of Aso’s options to boost support ratings would be to reshuffle his Cabinet and give the impression of a fresh start. Earlier this week, administrative reform minister Akira Amari, a close ally of Aso, called for a reshuffle.

Political observers, however, doubt such a move will have a positive effect for Aso. Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University, said it could backfire.

Kawakami likened a Cabinet reshuffle to a corporate executive shakeup, which more often than not creates resentment among employees who are demoted or overlooked for promotion. So instead of strengthening internal support, Aso would just end up making more enemies, Kawakami said.

“A Cabinet reshuffle could prove to be fatal for Aso,” Kawakami said. “And if one of the new ministers had to be fired for doing something wrong, that would drive LDP lawmakers even further away from Aso and intensify moves to bring him down.”

So when is the best timing for the ruling bloc to risk an election?

Even though the question seems to be on everyone’s mind in Nagata-cho, no one seems to have an answer.

Ruling bloc partner New Komeito has for a long time been urging Aso and the LDP to hold an election as soon as possible, so it won’t interfere with the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election slated for July.

This is a crucial poll for New Komeito, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization, because Tokyo is the group’s home ground and the party wants to devote its full attention to the assembly election.

However, a New Komeito executive, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that with the support rate for Aso plummeting, the situation had taken a turn for the worse, and he wasn’t sure if holding an election soon was the best option anymore.

Some political insiders say Aso’s next chance to call an election will come in late spring, around May, because the budget and related bills will have been approved by the Diet by then.

But other critics predict he will continue struggling on without being able to risk holding an election until the summer, when the Group of Eight summit will be held in early July in Italy.

Meiji Gakuin University’s Kawakami said he thinks the LDP will select a new leader to replace Aso after the G8 summit and then hold an election close to the Lower House deadline in September.

LDP lawmakers are just waiting until Aso embellishes the last days of his administration with an important diplomatic event like the G8 summit, Kawakami said. “In reality, the LDP lawmakers have already turned their attention to how to remove Aso and pave a smooth road to the election so they can win.”

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