September 25, 2008 / 11:04 AM / 10 years ago

Japan PM ratings bounce puts snap election in doubt

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s new prime minister, Taro Aso, has debuted in the job with voter support of just under 50 percent, a survey showed on Thursday, clouding the outlook for an early general election.

Japan's new Prime Minister Taro Aso waves before departing Haneda Airport in Tokyo September 25, 2008 to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Aso’s cabinet won support from 48.6 percent of voters polled by Kyodo news agency, about double the rating of his predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, before he quit this month but well under the nearly 60 percent Fukuda enjoyed when he took office.

Aso, Japan’s third premier in a year, unveiled his cabinet on Wednesday and the poll was begun on the same day.

The new prime minister has been expected to call a snap election for parliament’s powerful lower house to take advantage of a traditional bounce in support ratings when a new government is formed, but analysts said the figures could give him pause.

Aso, an outspoken nationalist, has said he wants to put priority on steps to bolster Japan’s faltering economy, but has made clear an election is in his sights. A lower house poll must be held by next September.

“He’ll think about it. They have been talking about a November 2 election. I thought if support was 50 percent or above he would call an election and if it were under 50, he couldn’t,” said Yasunori Sone, political science professor at Keio University.

“But if he waits, things are not going to improve. They will just get worse. He will probably try to do some skilful performance and go ahead with a snap election ... but the question is, can they win?”

DEBATE CHALLENGE?

The Kyodo survey showed that Aso, 68, scored much higher in a one-on-one comparison with Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, rating 53.9 percent to the opposition chief’s 29.4 percent.

But voters were evenly split over which party they planned to cast their ballots for at the next election, with 34.9 percent opting for Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party and 34.8 picking the Democrats.

Ozawa bolted from the LDP 15 years ago and helped oust it briefly from power. He has been trying to repeat that success ever since.

With many voters longing for change, analysts say the Democrats have a shot at ousting the LDP, which has ruled for most of the past half-century. But a more likely scenario is that neither side achieves a clear victory.

That would set the stage for more policy stalemate in parliament, where the opposition controls the upper house and can delay laws, and might trigger a rejigging of party allegiances.

Analysts said Aso — known for his ability to work a crowd with amusing patter — could try to boost his and his party’s ratings by challenging Ozawa to a direct debate.

Ozawa, 66, is a skilled election campaigner but often appears inarticulate and ill-at-ease when speaking in public.

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso (C) poses with cabinet members for a photo session at the premier's official residence in Tokyo September 25, 2008. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“What Aso can do is to challenge Ozawa to a debate of some sort and best him, and if Ozawa doesn’t accept, the media will criticize him,” said independent analyst Hirotaka Futatsuki.

Aso might, however, delay an election until early next year.

“Waiting to call an election is one option,” Futatsuki said. “But I still expect one within the year.”

Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds; Editing by David Fogarty

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