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Japan PM election target in focus as vote nears

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s ruling party will fall short of a majority but could hit Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s target in next Sunday’s upper house poll, media said, an outcome that would complicate policymaking but help Kan keep his job.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan listens to a translation during his closing news conference at the G20 Summit in Toronto June 27, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

Democratic Party Deputy Secretary-general Goshi Hosono echoed the forecast by the Mainichi newspaper, but some analysts said it was too rosy, and that Kan’s move to float a possible sales tax hike to curb Japan’s public debt could prove politically costly.

The Mainichi also said on Monday it was up in the air if the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and its tiny ally would get the 56 seats needed to control the chamber, meaning the Democrats might need to find new allies to implement policies smoothly.

The DPJ, which took power last year, will almost certainly run the government regardless of the July 11 result because it controls the powerful lower house. But it needs a majority in the upper chamber to enact laws and implement policies smoothly.

A July 2-4 survey by the Mainichi showed the DPJ may win between 49 and 59 of the 121 seats up for grabs in the 242-member upper house, and will probably win around 54, short of the 60 it needs for a majority.

Kan has set a target of winning at least 54 seats.

Graphic on Japan voter support, click

Graphic on voter intention, click

Graphic on Japan's fiscal woes, click

“Since 1989, no party has won a stable majority in the upper house, so that is a very tough target,” Hosono told Reuters in an interview. “As a practical target, we want to secure 54 seats ... That target is quite practical and we want to clear that.”


A weak election showing would undercut Kan’s ability to get backing from other parties to implement policies and could leave him vulnerable to a challenge from within his own party.

“He (Kan) won’t be able to claim victory and that will embolden the small parties as they bargain, or even try to break up the DPJ” if the DPJ falls short of Kan’s target of 54 or more seats, said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

The small pro-reform Your Party, whose policies are in some ways similar to the DPJ’s but which has rejected Kan’s calls for multiparty talks on tax reform, could win 8 to 13 seats in a jump from the one upper house seat it now holds, the Mainichi said.

Several analysts said the DPJ would probably get 50 or more seats but fewer than 54, but with nearly 30 percent of voters undecided predictions are difficult.

DPJ powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, who stepped down as the party’s No.2 last month when Kan’s predecessor Yukio Hatoyama resigned, has hinted he might mount a challenge to Kan in a party leadership vote due in September.

“The worst is if they get under 50 seats. Then there will be lots of pressure on Kan to leave. If they get over 50 (but under 54) he’ll survive, but weakened and not in a position to get much done,” said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.

Support for the Democrats rebounded after Kan, a former grassroots activist, took over in June but slipped back after he called for debate on raising the 5 percent sales tax to help curb a public debt already about twice the size of the economy.

“The problem for Kan is that he spearheaded discussion of the tax increase and that, according to the polls, is turning into a negative. If the result for the DPJ is not very good he will have to take the blame personally,” Sophia’s Nakano said.

In a survey by the Yomiuri newspaper, 65 percent of voters said a sales tax rise was needed, and some market experts believe an increase is in the works no matter what happens at the polls.

The DPJ’s Hosono said the party would renew its call for multiparty talks on tax reform including the sales tax regardless of the outcome of the election.

If such talks failed to materialise, the Democrats would craft their own proposal to take to voters at the next general election, which must be held by late 2013, he added.

“If it turned out that there was no multiparty debate at all, as the ruling party it would be completely unacceptable for concerns about Japan’s fiscal situation to grow and in that case, we would put forth our own ideas,” Hosono said.

Support for Kan’s government fell 9 points to 39 percent, an Asahi newspaper survey showed, while the Yomiuri put the government’s rating at 45 percent, down 5 points.

The Democrats kept their lead in voter preference in the surveys, but the gap with the main opposition LDP narrowed.

(Editing by Michael Watson)

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