Japan PM on defensive over military scandals

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TOKYO, Oct 28 (Reuters) Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda urged defence and military officials TOday to improve discipline even as a media survey showed scandals at the defence ministry denting public support for his month-old cabinet.

The scandals are not only eating into Fukuda's support but are complicating his battle with a resurgent opposition to enact a law to allow Japan's navy keep supporting US-led military operations in Afghanistan.

The current law enabling the mission expires on November 1.

The scandals include news a top official broke ethics rules by being entertained by a defence contractor and persistent speculation that fuel was diverted to support US activities in Iraq.

The official, former vice defence minister Takemasa Moriya, is to testify under oath in parliament on Monday about his ties to a defence contractor as well as about the refueling.

''It is truly regrettable that problems concerning the maintenance of discipline and management of information have emerged at the defence ministry and the Self-Defence Forces,'' Fukuda said at a review of Japanese troops.

''It is vital to maintain strict discipline,'' he added.

A Kyodo news agency poll showed that backing for Fukuda's cabinet fell 7.6 points to 50.2 per cent, hit by the defence scandals and a health ministry coverup of data on patients who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood products years ago.

Kyodo said 42.4 per cent of respondents wanted Japan's next government to be led by the main opposition Democratic Party, while 39.8 per cent wanted Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party, now in a coalition with a smaller party, to stay at the helm.

Public support for extending the naval mission to provide fuel to US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean against drug runners, gun smugglers and terrorists edged down about three points to 46.4 percent, Kyodo said.

Opposition among voters to continuing the naval activities -- which close ally Washington says are vital -- rose about the same amount to 42.9 per cent.

Opposition parties have vowed to vote against extending the mission in parliament's upper house, which they now control.

The ruling camp could override an upper house rejection of the bill with its two-thirds majority in the lower chamber but Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba told Reuters this month public support levels of around 60 per cent for the mission would be needed to take the step, which otherwise risks a backlash.

Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa is pushing for an early election for parliament's powerful lower house. No election need be held until late 2009 but speculation about poll next April or May is rife.

Reuters SS DB2013

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