TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party faces a tough fight to defeat its long-ruling rivals in a looming election, the party’s No.2 leader said on Friday.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has lost its second leader in less than a year, and the public is clamoring for a chance to vote. That opportunity is likely to come soon if, as expected, the next prime minister calls a snap poll for November.
But despite the LDP’s problems, the Democrats’ support rates have languished in the past two weeks, a trend Democratic Party Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama dismissed as a blip prompted by the ruling party’s lively contest to pick a new leader.
“The LDP is just enacting a pseudo-leadership race ... and focusing their criticism on the Democratic Party,” Hatoyama told Reuters in an interview. “But I don’t think this will result in the people giving a landslide of support for an LDP government.”
Five LDP contenders are vying to replace outgoing Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in a September 22 party poll. But former foreign minister Taro Aso has already locked up enough party votes to win, according to Japanese media surveys.
Hatoyama acknowledged the Democrats, formed a decade ago by LDP defectors and former socialists, had more work to do to achieve their goal of ousting a party that has ruled Japan for most of the past half-century.
“If we take 150 of the 300 single district seats, we would become the biggest party in the lower house without fail, and possibly get a majority,” he said. “But many candidates are not yet sufficiently prepared for us to meet that high target.”
Hatoyama added that even without winning a majority on their own, the Democrats hoped that by grabbing the most seats, they could form the core of a ruling coalition with other, smaller opposition parties.
The lower house has 300 members from single-seat districts and 180 from multi-member, proportional representation blocks.
A strategy for the cities, where the party was especially hard hit in a 2005 election that slashed its seats in the lower house, was especially vital, Hatoyama said.
But he added: “It would be hard to say that our strategy is 100 percent prepared, including what message we want to send.”
LDP frontrunner Aso is promising government spending and tax cuts to bolster Japan’s faltering economy.
Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa is stressing policies to shrink social gaps, reduce the power of bureaucrats over policies, and pay for minimum public pensions with tax revenues.
He also wants to abolish a gasoline surcharge and expressway tolls, provide child-rearing allowances and give aid to farmers.
A Yomiuri newspaper survey published on Friday showed that Aso would have the backing of nearly 60 percent of voters in a hypothetical face-off with Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa.
But the gap was smaller when voters were asked which party they would vote for in the next election, with 39 percent opting for the LDP against 33 percent who chose the Democrats.
Hatoyama said his party’s proposed steps would cost around 20 trillion yen ($186.6 billion), but he dismissed criticism that Ozawa, who bolted the LDP 15 years ago, was imitating its old pork-barrel policies.
“We are not trying to take power for the sake of pork-barrel policies. Instead of leaving everything to bureaucrats, we will eliminate waste and focus on what people really need,” he said.
Japan’s political stalemate, due to a divided parliament where the opposition controls the upper house and can delay laws, has led some pundits to predict a rejigging of lawmakers’ party allegiances if neither side wins a clear election victory.
Hatoyama agreed that possibility was real.
“There is not a world of difference between the ways of thinking of the LDP and the Democratic Party, so there is a fear that moves towards political realignment will grow stronger,” he said. “That would mean defeat for the Democratic Party, so we must make every effort to prevent it.”
Editing by Rodney Joyce