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Aso dissolves parliament, calls vote

JAPANESE Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved the powerful lower house of Japan's parliament yesterday and vowed his divided ruling party will make a new start in national elections next month despite forecasts it may lose the grip it has held on the nation for most of the past 55 years.

Aso, who had until October at the latest to disband parliament, had been under increasing pressure to exercise that power because of his dwindling support ratings and political gridlock with the opposition that has stymied business in parliament.

After parliament was dissolved, he slammed the opposition, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, as having no substantive policies of its own and trying merely to capitalize on his unpopularity.

"The Liberal Democratic Party is the only party that can lead Japan responsibly," Aso said.

Aso had resisted calling a vote, hoping his low approval ratings would recover, but he caved in after his party was routed in local elections last week and his own party threatened to dump him.

Acknowledging the odds against him, Aso - known for his verbal gaffes - began his remarks with an apology, a bow and a promise to do better.

"The economy and protecting people's livelihoods has been my top priority," he said. "But because of my inadvertent comments, the public lost trust in me and the government. I deeply regret this."

Analysts have predicted the elections for parliament's lower house, to be held on August 30, could be disastrous for the governing LDP. Japan's opposition leader set the tone for the campaign, saying yesterday the polls would be "historic."

The Liberal Democrats have maintained a majority in the lower house for most of the past 55 years, allowing them to dominate the lawmaking process and select the prime minister and Cabinet members from party ranks.

Recent opinion polls show the next election could be different, with many voters saying they will defect to the opposition amid Japan's steepest recession since World War II. This has happened repeatedly in local elections, where the Liberal Democrats have suffered a string of defeats.

"The feelings and complaints of the people have been demonstrated in the recent elections. We must sincerely reflect on this and are determined to make a fresh start," Aso told party lawmakers earlier in the day.

Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama said the election would lead to a major change in Japanese politics for the first time in decades.

"This is not just a matter of drawing the curtain on the Liberal Democrats. It is not as small as that," he said. "We must go into this election with a feeling of our historic mission."

Several recent polls have indicated broad support for the Democrats. Fifty-six percent of voters said they wanted the Democrats to take power, with just 23 percent supporting the ruling LDP, according to a poll in the Mainichi newspaper.


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