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Japan PM's future in balance as campaign kicks off

   

NY Times: July 12, 2007

TOKYO (Reuters) - Campaigning began on Thursday for a Japanese upper house election on July 29 that could cost Prime Minister Shinzo Abe his job and usher in a period of policy stagnation if his bloc loses big.

Chances that Abe's ruling coalition will keep its upper house majority have dimmed because of government mishandling of pension records and a series of scandals and gaffes that forced three ministers from his cabinet, two by resigning and one by suicide.

"The battle starts from here," Abe told a crowd in Tokyo's Akihabara district, packed with stores selling the latest electronics goods and beloved by the "otaku" geeks who buy them.

"Will it be reform or moving backwards? Will there be economic growth, or going backwards?" Abe shouted as rain fell.

The LDP and its junior partner, the New Komeito party, need to win a total of 64 seats to keep their majority in the upper house, where half of the 242 seats are up for grabs.

The New Komeito is aiming for 13 seats.

The Democrats are touting the upper house poll as a step towards taking power. "If you do not give us a majority in this election, there will be no change of government in Japan," Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa told a crowd in western Japan, where he kicked off his party's campaign.

A loss by the ruling camp would not automatically require Abe to step down, since the lower house picks the prime minister.

Abe, at 52 Japan's youngest prime minister since World War Two, won kudos early on for improving chilly ties with China. But he has since seen his public support ratings tumble to some 30 percent, about half the level when he took office last September.

"I usually vote for the LDP, but this time I'll vote for the Democratic Party," said Ryuzo Nakagawa, 72, a retired auto company executive who came to hear a Democratic Party leader stump for a candidate in Tokyo. "The LDP needs to lose big. Abe doesn't have the credentials to be a leader."

A MATTER OF SCALE

A staunch ally of the United States, Abe has pledged to rewrite the pacifist constitution and boost Japan's global security profile -- a change Washington would welcome.

He also wants to lead the country out of a "post-World War Two regime" that conservatives argue overemphasized Japan's wartime wrongdoing and stressed individualism at the expense of traditional values such as public service and patriotism.

That agenda resonates with some voters.

"I don't think pensions are the first priority," Seiichi Ogawa, a 62-year-old technology consultant, said after Abe's speech. "The first priority is the constitution and education."

Abe, however, has had little scope to stress such matters amid the furor over pensions, public concern over political corruption and doubts about his leadership.

One cabinet minister resigned in December over a political spending scandal, the health minister barely kept his post after referring to women as "birth-giving machines," and the scandal-tainted farm minister hanged himself in May.

Then last week the defense minister stepped down over remarks that appeared to condone the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now Agriculture Minister Norihiko Akagi is under fire over reports that he falsely booked millions of yen in spending for political offices that no longer exist.

Akagi has denied any wrongdoing.

If the ruling coalition wins at least 55 seats, including 45 for the LDP, analysts say the soft-spoken, stylish Abe can probably keep his job and cobble together a majority by wooing independents, disaffected Democrats or lawmakers from a small conservative party, the People's New Party.

But a big defeat would make it hard to enact laws and would put pressure on Abe to resign, as then prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto did after losing a 1998 upper house poll.

That could return Japan to the short-lived governments seen in the 1990s and siphon lawmakers' energy from policy-making to political jockeying, analysts say.

Toshiko Hamayotsu, a New Komeito leader, told Reuters on Wednesday that a big loss for the ruling camp could trigger a snap election for the lower house, although no general election need be held until 2009. It could also spark a rejigging of political allegiances among Democrats and the LDP.

The Democratic Party groups together former LDP lawmakers, one-time Socialists and younger conservatives. Its leader, Ozawa, suffers from an image as an old-style backroom fixer ill at ease in modern, media-driven politics.





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