The Liberal Democratic Party fell into further disarray Tuesday, with party executives scrambling to stop the movement to oust Prime Minister Taro Aso from spreading as some LDP lawmakers grew louder in their calls to replace the unpopular party chief ahead of the Lower House election.

LDP heavyweights, including former Secretaries General Tsutomu Takebe and Hidenao Nakagawa, have openly called on Aso to step down so he can be replaced before the Lower House election expected to be held in early or late August.

The LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition is widely seen as fighting a losing battle against the opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party of Japan and has recently lost some key local elections.

In an attempt to contain the oust-Aso movement, LDP Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda threatened to punish outspoken lawmakers.

“Naturally, I would consider (punishing) party members if they clearly disturb the unity of our party,” Hosoda told a news conference. “Some point out that there are already such people. We must continue to watch the course of events.”

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who has also declared that a presidential election should be held before the general election, likened the moves by the party executive to the Ansei Purge in 1858-1859, when the Edo government purged more than 100 opponents of its policies and executed eight of them.

“The Ansei Purge has begun again,” Shiozaki said. “But the LDP will hold lively debate before eventually reaching a conclusion. Whether we can (reach accommodation) will show the expiration date of the LDP.”

But LDP lawmaker Ichita Yamamoto stressed that it would be unwise for the party to choose yet another new leader.

Aso is the LDP’s fourth leader since the last general election in 2005, in which the party scored a landslide with Junichiro Koizumi at the helm. But after he left office, both Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, his two successors, stepped down unexpectedly after managing only a year each in office.

“I think that it would have a negative effect on the LDP if we change,” Yamamoto said. “It may be a tough situation right now, but I would like Prime Minister Aso to put forward a good manifesto, and personally I would like him to call an election as soon as possible and bring this to a conclusion.”

Speculation has been growing since last week among political insiders that Aso may reshuffle the party’s executives and Cabinet. Some media predicted the reshuffle may take place Thursday.

By appointing popular figures, Aso would hope to reverse his Cabinet’s plummeting public support ratings before calling a snap election.

Yet there is strong opposition against such a reshuffle among some party members and it remains unclear whether Aso has the political capital to carry it out.

Aso, who told reporters Monday he was not planning on reshuffling the party leadership “at the moment,” flip-flopped Tuesday and said he would decide personnel matters himself, hinting he may carry out a reshuffle despite the strong protests of some party members.

Regarding the fact that some Cabinet members are serving in more than one position due to their predecessors’ resignations, Aso said, “I have been thinking (of appointing) the appropriate person at the suitable time.”

In a move to fend off those within the party calling to replace Aso before the election, a group of lawmakers met at LDP headquarters in Tokyo, where they agreed to form a new group to support the unpopular leader.

Ryota Takeda, the lawmaker who hosted the meeting, told reporters he could not tolerate those within the party who appear to consider the prime minister an “election campaign mascot.”

He also stressed that as Diet members, they owe it to the public to take full responsibility for a leader they put in power.

“I understand there are lawmakers who disapprove of the Aso Cabinet,” he said. “But we still need to take responsibility and support the prime minister that we created.”

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