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Japan PM on defensive over disaster leadership

by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) May 1, 2011
Japan's unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan pleaded for public "understanding" Sunday after a poll showed three-quarters of people questioned his leadership and handling of the post-disaster crisis.

In a weekend telephone survey by Kyodo news agency, 76 percent of 1,010 respondents believed Kan was "not exercising leadership" in dealing with the March 11 quake and tsunami and the ensuing crisis at a nuclear power plant.

Some 24 percent wanted the prime minister to "resign immediately", up from 14 percent in a similar poll conducted two weeks after the disaster that left 26,000 people dead or missing, and crippled the Fukushima atomic plant.

Kan has even come under pressure to step down from within his centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) following its heavy losses in two rounds of local elections last month.

"People may feel that the government is acting slowly in various aspects and they may have lingering fears in various aspects. I can understand their feelings," Kan said in parliament Sunday.

"At the same time, I can say that the government for its part has been doing its utmost... if not in a perfect manner. I want to call on the people to understand this."

He was answering questions from a member of the conservative opposition before the upper house budget committee which was discussing a 4.0 trillion yen ($49 billion) extra budget to help fund post-disaster reconstruction.

Both the ruling bloc as well as major opposition parties are expected to give the final nod to the budget on Monday.

At May Day rallies in Tokyo, trade unions confederations called for an end to nuclear power generation.

"Let us join our hands in switching Japan's society off from nuclear power," Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima told one rally.

Even before the catastrophe, Kan's approval rating had slumped below 20 percent, its lowest since he took office in June last year. And on the day the tsunami hit, he was facing calls to quit over a donations scandal.

Since the disaster, Kan has been criticised for being slow in taking steps to distribute relief goods and cash donations and for not preventing the stricken Fukushima plant from leaking radiation in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

His initial move to set up 20 advisory groups to deal with the crisis has been ridiculed as showing his incompetence as a national leader.

Under Kan's prodding, the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), announced a roadmap in mid-April to put the plant's reactors into a "cold shutdown" within six to nine months.

Although its feasibility has been widely questioned, the premier told the committee: "It was me who has ordered the roadmap to be drawn up."

"I am trying to expedite the project to let all the (evacuated) people settle themselves in temporary housing, if they wish, by Obon (a Buddhist holiday in early August)," said Kan.

Kan's DPJ swept to power in an electoral landslide in 2009, ending half a century of almost unbroken conservative rule and winning a vast majority in the key lower house.

But the premier's backing for a higher consumer tax led the DPJ to defeat in an upper house election last July before a string of poor showing in local polls.

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