By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan plans to sound out the opposition on joining a grand coalition to handle reconstruction policy following last week's quake and tsunami and amid the ongoing nuclear crisis.
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.
Kan told a news conference on Friday that he was considering "strengthening the cabinet," without giving any details, but media has said this included the idea of increasing the number of cabinet ministers to 20 from the current 17 and creating some new posts to handle reconstruction.
The idea 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."
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 ceasefire since the earthquake.
This is crucial, because aside from the crucial legislation that will be needed for reconstruction, enlarging the cabinet will require a new law as well.
But whether the truce will last is anyone's guess.
LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki said on Saturday the LDP had not received such a request and that the party was "not thinking of this," Japanese media reported -- a move that Nakano said might or might not be a bit of political theater.
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 poor handling of the quake, particularly in soothing the 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 rumors, 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 materialize, the opposition parties now are under stronger pressure to cooperate with the government," he said. "This is no time for really petty point-scoring."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)