TOKYO Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, charging the ruling party had lost its ability to govern after two premiers quit in a year, called on Wednesday for an early election to seek the people's will.
Ozawa made the call in parliament where he traded blows with Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso in a preview to an election that could be held as soon as next month.
"If the ruling parties have lost the ability to govern, it is logical in a parliamentary democracy to hand over government to the opposition and call an election," Ozawa said.
In remarks that also outlined his party's platform, Ozawa pledged to cut gasoline taxes, strengthen social safety nets and eliminate the wasteful spending he said was a hallmark of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Aso hit back hard, accusing the Democrats of being irresponsible by blocking key bills in parliament, where the opposition controls the upper house and can delay legislation.
"I will decide myself when to call an election," he said in response to Ozawa's call for a snap poll.
BUSINESS SENTIMENT TURNS GLOOMY
Aso later told reporters voters were more interested in measures to boost the faltering economy and a proposed extra budget than an early election.
"The U.S. financial crisis came after our original plan for the extra budget," Aso said. "The effects from this on the real economy may turn out to be bigger than what newspapers say."
Japanese business sentiment has turned pessimistic for the first time in five years, the Bank of Japan's closely watched tankan survey showed on Wednesday, an indication that a global slowdown and financial turmoil are taking a toll as the economy teeters on the brink of recession.
Aso, who blasted the Democrats on Monday in his first policy statement since taking office last week, has been expected to call a lower house poll for as early as next month to try to break a political stalemate that is stalling government policies.
Analysts say the Democrats and their allies have a shot at ousting the long-ruling LDP in the next lower house election, but a more likely outcome is that decisive victory eludes both sides.
Ozawa outlined five policy pledges, including strengthening Japan's creaking pension and health care systems and stimulating the economy with steps such as aid for farmers and abolishing a tax surcharge on gasoline earmarked for roads.
He also repeated a promise to devote revenues from Japan's 5 percent consumption tax to funding basic public pensions.
But he made no mention of the politically touchy topic of future hikes in the tax, seen as necessary by most economists to fund the rising social welfare costs of an aging society.
Under pressure to spell out how he would fund such steps, Ozawa said the money could be found by ending waste, tapping special government accounts and abolishing quasi-public firms that critics say provide cushy jobs for ex-bureaucrats.
A former LDP heavyweight who bolted 15 years ago and helped briefly oust it, Ozawa has been striving ever since to create a viable mainstream alternative to topple the long-ruling party.
No lower house election need be held until September 2009, but lawmakers are already in campaign mode.
Ozawa, who opposes Japan's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, promised to tighten ties with close ally Washington while building a relationship of trust with Asian neighbors including China.
But he added: "An alliance must be between equals and to always ... do just what America says cannot be said to be an alliance."
Aso wants to extend the naval mission, an enabling law for which expires in January. Ozawa has said the dispatch lacks U.N. approval and so violates Japan's pacifist constitution.
(Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka, Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Bill Tarrant)