The Japanese government lost a regional vote seen as a barometer for this year’s elections and suffered a further blow yesterday as Prime Minister Taro Aso’s approval ratings slumped to new lows.
But the ruling bloc pressed ahead with an unpopular plan for cash handouts to fight the recession in Asia’s largest economy, even though the opposition campaigned against it in Sunday’s election in northern Yamagata Prefecture.
The rural province is a long-time stronghold of Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power for all but 10 months since 1955 with support from the countryside and business interests.
Mieko Yoshimura, 57, a fresh-faced politician supported by the opposition, was narrowly elected governor. She defeated LDP-backed former central banker Hiroshi Saito, final results yesterday showed.
Yoshimura, a former administrative secretary, pledged to scrap her predecessor’s structural reforms and instead boost spending to revive the ailing agricultural sector and create new jobs.
Saito, 51, had trimmed spending on everything from public works to bureaucrats’ wages in line with an LDP drive to repair Japan’s bloated finances.
The opposition, which controls the upper house, hailed Yoshimura’s victory as a step towards dethroning the LDP in general elections which must be called by September.
“Next comes the national political scene. We would like to use this momentum as a springboard to continue our fight,” senior opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama told reporters.
“The Aso government should take this very seriously and should reconsider its positions that it has taken until now,” Hatoyama said.
Hatoyama said the vote was the public’s show of no-confidence in the government’s economic stimulus program, particularly the controversial cash-handout program and plans to raise the consumption tax as early as 2011.
Chief government spokesman Takeo Kawamura took the defeat in his stride, saying the LDP “will analyze the reasons for this defeat and will draw up strategies for the general election.”
Aso’s popularity continued to slide as he faces criticism — even by some lawmakers within the LDP — for his handling of the recession.
The Mainichi Shimbun said support for Aso’s government slipped two points from last month to 19 percent, making him the second-least popular prime minister since the newspaper first conducted such polls in 1949.
The Nikkei Shimbun, which randomly called 1,516 households, said support for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan had risen to 37 percent with that of the LDP slipping to 29 percent.
Despite the blow, Aso pushed forward yesterday with parliament close to enacting the ¥4.8 trillion (US$54 billion) extra budget that includes the cash handouts.