TOKYO Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso tried to rally his fracturing party on Sunday ahead of an election this year it looks set to lose, vowing to turn around a worsening recession and win over disillusioned voters.
Aso, 68, is struggling to manage his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the face of newly confident opposition parties, who control parliament's upper house and have threatened to stall bills in a bid to force an early election.
The unpopular leader has ruled out a snap poll for now but an election must be held by October at the latest.
"Of all the parties out there, only the LDP can rightly deal with this economic crisis," Aso told an annual party convention, at which members sang the party anthem and listened to a pep talk from an Olympic synchronized swimming medalist.
"I want to express my determination to take leadership and fight on," he said to applause.
Hours later, at a hotel across town, main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Ichiro Ozawa blasted Aso's policies and urged voters to oust the LDP and its junior partner, the New Komeito, at the polls.
"Every day that the LDP and the New Komeito stay in power, the damage to the people's livelihood increases," Ozawa said.
"I think that in reality, this economic crisis is a good opportunity to achieve a major shift in Japan," added Ozawa, a former LDP heavyweight who bolted the party in 1993 and helped briefly oust it. "I think we can achieve this shift in the system ... precisely because many people are aware of the crisis."
An outspoken nationalist and fan of manga comic books, Aso was chosen by the LDP last September to woo a public fed up with politics after two leaders quit abruptly in less than a year.
But with Aso's support ratings having fallen to below 20 percent, LDP lawmakers are increasingly worried that the party is facing the end of more than five decades of near-unbroken rule.
In a sign of the party's fraying unity, ex-financial services minister Yoshimi Watanabe quit the party last week after his calls for an early election and other policy demands were ignored.
Analysts doubt many lawmakers will follow Watanabe for now, but more groups within the LDP are growing vocal in their criticism of Aso and his policies.
LDP lawmakers last week weighed in against Aso's plan to include an addendum to the fiscal 2009/10 budget and related bills to increase the 5 percent consumption tax starting in 2011 if the economy recovers.
Economists have long said that the consumption tax should be raised to finance ballooning social security costs, but critics of a tax increase argue that specifying the timing for one now would further cool the economy.
"We need a consensus from the public first," former LDP secretary-general Hidenao Nakagawa, an opponent of a consumption tax increase, told reporters after the party convention.
The Democrats are also opposed to raising the tax without first eradicating waste and changing how resources are allocated.
More LDP defections would be fatal for Aso, whose ruling coalition needs a two-thirds majority vote in the lower house to pass budget-related bills rejected by the opposition-dominated upper house in coming months.
A group of young regional representatives at the LDP convention shook hands with a smiling Aso on stage and shouted pledges to win at the polls, but others were less optimistic.
"No matter what we say or what we do, there's a sense that the media and public opinion are against us," said Takashige Okano, 30, a party member and a lawmaker's secretary.
"I talk to other party members and they've lost hope."
Despite the apparent tailwind for the Democrats, however, caution simmered below the surface at their convention.
"What's most important is to realize that when you think you will win, that's when you can lose," Hirohisa Fujii, 76, a top DPJ adviser, told Reuters. "If every candidate realizes that, though, I think we have a good shot at winning."
(Editing by Valerie Lee)