Mon, Jul 12, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Opposition gains ground following election

AP , TOKYO

A woman walks past campaign posters in Tokyo yesterday as voting began.

PHOTO:AFP

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling coalition appeared to narrowly keep control of the upper house of Parliament in nationwide elections Sunday, but will face a much stronger challenge from the rival Democratic Party, which marked big gains, Japanese media reported.

National broadcaster NHK reported that the ruling coalition had won at least 43 seats, ensuring a majority in the upper house. The opposition Democrats, however, were expected to make significant gains, possibly winning more seats than Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party.

Official results were expected Monday morning.

"The people have issued a resounding `no' to Koizumi's policies," Katsuya Okada, head of the Democrats, said as initial results indicated his party was doing better than expected.

Half of the chamber's 242 seats were contested. Before the vote, the Liberal Democrats held 115 seats in the upper house and controlled a majority of seats together with coalition partner Komeito's 23 seats.

The top opposition party, the centrist Democrats, had 70. The LDP set its victory bar low.

Party leaders said they would consider winning 51 seats -- one more than its 50 seats being contested -- a good showing. But early results indicated even that would be a challenge.

The Democrats, with 38 seats being contested, were expected to win 48-55 seats.

LDP coalition partner Komeito -- a party backed by the Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai -- was expected to hold on to its 10 seats being contested, and perhaps add one or two, NHK said.

Koizumi acknowledged the party was embroiled in a "tough battle," but said he would not step down as long as the coalition held its majority.

"There would be no need for that," he said in an interview with NTV, a nationwide television network. "As long as we can keep control of both houses, we will continue with our reform policies."

The elections came at a difficult time for Koizumi.

Though one of Japan's most popular postwar leaders, his support has been plunging. A survey by Japan's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, showed Koizumi's support has fallen to 35.7 percent -- the first time it had dropped below 40 percent since he took office in April 2001.

Pollsters attribute the decline to anger over a new law that hikes mandatory pension premiums and cuts benefits -- a major issue in a nation that has the world's longest life expectancy for both men and women and is graying rapidly.

The safety of Japan's troops in Iraq has also been an issue, especially since no Japanese soldier has killed or been killed in battle since World War II.

Responding to US President George W. Bush's call for "boots on the ground," Koizumi championed the plan to dispatch several hundred soldiers on a non-combat, humanitarian mission to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah almost six months ago in this country's biggest overseas military operation since World War II. The security situation has deteriorated rapidly, raising fears that the soldiers could become a target for insurgents.

Koizumi's party is also battling a rise in support among voters for a two-party system.

The Democrats, emboldened by big strides in the November lower house elections, have appealed to voters to give them a chance to provide a viable, centrist alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP has ruled almost continuously since the party was created in 1955.

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