Japanese prime minister may go for early elections

 

THE PRIME minister of Japan is fighting for his political life today after local elections in Tokyo yesterday appeared to hand his party, the ruling Liberal Democrats, (LDP) a major defeat.

With results still coming in last night, the opposition Democrats (DPJ) looked set to become the capital’s largest party, leaving the ruling LDP-New Komeito coalition trailing in second place.

The Tokyo poll is being widely seen as a litmus test of the government’s popularity ahead of a looming general election, which is likely to see the LDP lose its half-century grip on power.

Early projections by Kyodo News suggested that the DPJ would win a majority of the 127 seats being fought in Tokyo, with independents and communists also making gains at the LDP’s expense.

Taro Aso spent much of the last two weeks playing down expectations in the poll. “The result of the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly election will have nothing to do with state politics,” he was quoted as saying over the weekend in the Japanese media.

The Tokyo result, however, follows a string of electoral defeats for LDP-backed candidates across the country, indicating that the party, which has ruled for all but 10 months since 1955, is on course for a historic rout in the upcoming general election.

Kyodo news agency reported that Mr Aso might make a statement today indicating his intention to dissolve the lower house and hold a general election in August, but said many in the ruling group would be opposed to that move. Mr Aso must dismiss the lower house before October. He has been in power just 10 months and is Japan’s fourth leader since the last lower house election in 2005. His two predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, both resigned amid controversy and poor poll ratings.

The prime minister now appears to be politically a dead man walking. Even before the Tokyo results, LDP parliamentarians were openly discussing removing him from power, with one plotter claiming to have the support of 110 party members.

The result of yesterday’s poll is likely to convince more in the party that they have a better chance of winning a general election later in the year without Mr Aso at the helm.

“Even if the prime minister tries to dissolve the lower house, some LDP cabinet members . . . would surely refuse to agree to this,” said one politician in the Yomiuri newspaper yesterday. “So it would be best for Aso to resign.”

After a short, gaffe-prone career marred by poor cabinet choices and Japan’s deepest recession since the 1970s, Mr Aso is struggling with rock-bottom popularity. A bungled cabinet reshuffle earlier this month has failed the slide in his fortunes.

Ironically, he was chosen from within the floundering party last autumn because of his perceived popularity with voters and his impeccable political pedigree – he is the grandson of former prime minister Shigeru Yoshida and is related to the emperor by marriage. Possible candidates to replace Mr Aso include minister of health, labour and welfare, Yoichi Masuzoe (60), a former academic and TV commentator who is seen as competent and hard-working.