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Japan to reshuffle cabinet

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TOKYO A day after a devastating election defeat in Japan's parliament, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today rejected calls for his resignation, saying the country couldn't afford the resulting "power vacuum."

In a vote for half of the seats in the upper house of parliament, voters voiced their outrage over a series of political scandals and the loss of millions of pension records, stripping Abe's Liberal Democratic Party of its majority in the 242-seat body.

Abe, regardless, said he wasn't giving up his post.

"I cannot walk away even though the situation is extremely difficult. I decided (to stay) because we cannot afford to create a political vacuum," Abe said. "My responsibility is to fulfill the duty to fully achieve economic recovery."

The leader also shot down suggestions that he should call snap elections in parliament's lower house where his party has firm control to re-establish his political mandate. Instead, he announced plans to shuffle his Cabinet and the party leadership, possibly as early as September.

"Voters said we must reflect on our shortcomings and refresh the lineup," Abe said. "I plan to reshuffle the Cabinet and top party posts at an appropriate time."

The LDP remains in control of the lower house and thus still controls the government, but Sunday's defeat was a clear sign of Abe's tumbling fortunes and a dramatic reversal of the stellar support he enjoyed when he took office less than a year ago.

By this morning, newspaper editorials were urging Abe to resign.

"Voters gave a clear failing mark," the Asahi newspaper said. "The prime minister should face the results seriously and step down."

The Tokyo and Mainichi newspapers called on Abe to disband parliament's lower house for snap elections that could put a new premier in office.

"You have yet to be baptized in a general election," the Tokyo Newspaper said in an editorial addressed to the beleaguered prime minister. "We call for an election to be held promptly to give voters the opportunity to make their choice."

Official election results showed the LDP and its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito, with a total of 103 seats a 30-seat loss that left it far short of the 122 needed to control the house. The main opposition Democratic Party grabbed 112 seats, up from 81.

Only half of the upper chamber's 242 seats were up for grabs in Sunday's polls.

While Abe has refused to step down, the LDP's No. 2 official, Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa, resigned in the face of mounting losses.

Despite Abe's stand, calls for his resignation could start sounding from within the Liberal Democratic Party. While there is no clear front-runner to succeed Abe as premier, Foreign Minister Taro Aso is often cited as a possible contender.

Stepping down in the face of a heavy election defeat is not unprecedented.

In 1998, then-Prime Minster Ryutaro Hashimoto was forced to quit after the Liberal Democratic Party won just 44 seats out of 121. Sousuke Uno lost his job as prime minister after winning only 36 seats in 1989. Abe himself resigned as secretary-general of the party in 2004, when the Liberal Democrats won 49 seats, two short of their goal.

Some senior LDP lawmakers were taking a wait-and-see approach in the aftermath. Ruling party veteran Koichi Kato described Abe's choice to stay as hasty. "I'm not sure if it was the right decision," Kato said.

Yukio Hatoyama, a Democratic Party leader, said the vote sent "a strong message of no-confidence" to Abe.

Abe painted his continuation as a matter of making good on previous pledges to push through reforms. He said economic revival and constitutional reform will top the agenda as his party moves forward.

"I'm ready for a rocky road, but we cannot go on without pursuing the reform track, and that requires commitment and plans," Abe said. "I've already promised reforms that must be put into action. I've kept my promises and I will continue to do so."

Sunday's defeat, however, will make it more difficult for the LDP to pass bills that are contested, with the upper house expected to have a president from the Democratic Party of Japan whose members would also dominate key posts in house committees.

Abe, 52, promised to build a "beautiful Japan" when he became the nation's youngest-ever prime minister in September, and he won points for mending strained diplomatic ties with South Korea and China.

But his honeymoon was short-lived.

In the first of a series of scandals, Administrative Reform Minister Genichiro Sata stepped down in December over charges of misusing of political funds. In May, Abe's agriculture minister killed himself amid allegations he also misused public money. The new agriculture minister became embroiled in another funds scandal.

Perhaps most infuriating for voters, Abe brushed off warnings by the opposition late last year that pension records had been lost. That inaction came back to haunt him in the spring, when the full scope of the records losses emerged. Some 50 million claims had been wiped out.

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