TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan tried and failed on Saturday to form a crisis cabinet to tackle its biggest challenge since World War Two, unable to overcome a political divide even in the face of an epic natural disaster.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan had planned to sound out the opposition about joining a grand coalition to handle reconstruction policy after last week's quake, tsunami and the ongoing nuclear crisis, but the leader of the largest opposition party rejected the idea out of hand.
Before the disaster hit, opposition parties were pressing Kan to call a snap election by refusing to help enact vital budget bills, while rivals in Kan's own party were plotting to force their unpopular leader to quit to improve their fortunes.
The opposition, including the top rival, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled Japan nearly without a break for roughly 50 years until being deposed by the Democrats in 2009, has declared a political cease-fire since the earthquake.
Kan told a news conference on Friday that he was considering "strengthening the cabinet", which media said included the idea of increasing the number of cabinet ministers to 20 from the current 17 and creating some new posts to handle reconstruction.
But LDP head Sadakazu Tanigaki said on Saturday that he had phoned Kan to reject the idea, Jiji news agency said.
The proposition had been floated prior to the March 11 disaster as a means of dealing with Japan's "national crisis" but never really acquired any traction, perhaps due to the sense that it was premature, one political observer said.
"But now, after the earthquake and the tsunami and the nuclear situation, I think it's quite appropriate to talk about a national crisis," said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
"I'm not surprised or particularly against the idea of a national grand coalition. I think the Kan government should try all kinds of things to do what works."
This is crucial, because besides the legislation required to enlarge the cabinet, the government has to pass laws to authorise a budget and craft policy for reconstruction from the 9.0 quake and massive tsunami that have left over 10,000 dead and carved a swathe of destruction along Japan's Pacific coast.
Japan, burdened with massive government debt even before the disaster struck, now must handle large-scale humanitarian operations in the ravaged northeast.
Kan's government has yet to say how much, or how, it plans to raise to deal with damage that economists estimate could reach $200 billion, nearly 4 percent of Japan's economic output and more than what an economy like Egypt produces in a year.
Some Japanese media and economists have been suggesting an extra emergency budget could top 10 trillion yen ($127 billion).
Nakano said Tanigaki's refusal could be from genuine belief, or it could just as well be political theatre. Unilateral support from Kan's own party may also be less than easy to get.
Yukio Hatoyama, Kan's predecessor as prime minister until being forced to quit in June in an effort to improve the party's chances in an election the next month, apparently took him to task on Saturday for his handling of the situation, particularly efforts to soothe anxieties of a jittery public worried about possible radiation leaks.
"You can't say that absolutely all the information is out there," Hatoyama was quoted by Jiji news agency as telling Kan.
"This includes damage due to rumours, which has caused quite a lot of worry to spread."
Kan's voter support rate had sunk to around 20 percent before the March 11 quake due to a view that he was flip-flopping on policy, bungling diplomatic relations and generally making a mess of governing.
Nakano said that a grand coalition had significant disadvantages, including the possibility that it might end up so totally unworkable that it can't accomplish anything, and that it wasn't really needed at this point anyway.
"Even if the grand coalition doesn't materialise, the opposition parties now are under stronger pressure to cooperate with the government," he said. "This is no time for really petty point-scoring."
(Additional reporting by Tomasz Janowski, editing by Nick Macfie)