Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda replaced five cabinet ministers on Monday hoping to smooth the way to a deal with the opposition on doubling sales tax in spite of a rift in the ruling party over the plan.
By removing the ministers, who the opposition has criticised for not performing properly, Noda hopes to persuade the biggest opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to back a package of tax bills including the sales tax increase.
He needs opposition support to bet bills through a divided parliament.
The increase in sales tax, which would bring it to 10 percent by 2015 from 5 percent now, is seen as essential in an effort to curb Japan's snowballing public debt.
The debt exceeds the value of two years of economic output, the highest among industrialised nations and ratings agency Fitch cut its credit rating last month, citing scant progress in coping with swelling social security costs.
"This reshuffle is to strengthen the cabinet and ensure that the government can make progress on several different policies, including tax and welfare reform," Noda said at a news conference.
"I cannot allow this bill to be defeated. I will do my best to make sure this bill gets passed."
The LDP has long tried to force Noda to call an early election by threatening to block the bills in parliament's upper house, which the opposition controls.
However, in the past weeks the LDP has indicated a compromise was possible if the ruling Democrats agreed to drop parts of the tax and social security reform that could lead to more spending.
Noda is increasing efforts to narrow the gap with the opposition, and at the same time struggling to unite his own Democratic Party after a second round of talks in a week with the party's power broker, Ichiro Ozawa, fell apart on Sunday.
NODA AIMS FOR VOTE THIS SESSION
The opposition reacted coolly to the cabinet reshuffle. LDP upper house secretary general Kensei Mizote said any talks on a compromise on welfare reform had nothing to do with Noda's decision to shake up his cabinet, according to Kyodo News.
Noda replaced the defence minister, Naoki Tanaka, and the transport minister, Takeshi Maeda, who were both censured in April by the upper house, along with three others who have faced criticism.
Tanaka's replacement is Satoshi Morimoto, a conservative academic and well-known expert in security policy who has served in the Foreign Ministry and the air force.
Yuichiro Hata, who previously served as the Democrats' head of parliamentary affairs in the upper house, is the new transport minister.
Banking Minister Shozaburo Jimi, who heads a small coalition partner but whose ability has been questioned in parliament, has been replaced by Tadahiro Matsushita, vice minister for reconstruction after a 2011 earthquake.
Farm Minister Michihiko Kano will also be replaced. He has been connected with a Chinese diplomat who is suspected of espionage. The justice minister was also replaced.
Without the votes of a group of legislators loyal to Ozawa, the Democratic Party's biggest faction, Noda needs opposition help to pass bills through the lower and upper houses of parliament.
A former finance minister, Noda has staked his career on the tax increase, pledging to force a vote in this session of parliament which ends on June 21.
(Additional reporting by Rie Ishiguro; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Robert Birsel)