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Japan set for August election after ruling party's Tokyo loss

JAPAN'S struggling prime minister will likely dissolve parliament next week and hold national elections next month following a crushing defeat for his party in a Tokyo municipal election seen as a barometer of voter sentiment.

With the opposition surging in popularity, it appeared increasingly likely it could take power after 50 years of almost exclusive rule by Prime Minister Taro Aso's Liberal Democratic Party.

Aso told leaders of his party he would likely dissolve the powerful lower house of the legislature next week, with a general election to be held on August 30, according to a party spokesman.

The emboldened opposition, led by the rising Democratic Party of Japan, added to his headaches yesterday by submitting to parliament a no-confidence motion, said party spokesman Toshiaki Oikawa. The motion was expected to have little real effect other than to embarrass the administration and delay discussions on pending bills.

The political maneuvers came after elections results released early in the morning showed Aso's Liberal Democrats and their ruling coalition partner lost their majority in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, the local parliament for Japan's capital and most populated prefecture. The opposition made major gains.

Since taking office in September last year, Aso has struggled to shore up sagging public support, which remains near 20 percent. The 68-year-old premier has been hurt by a string of political gaffes and what has been seen as indecisive stances on key issues.

The Tokyo vote does not directly affect national elections, but it was closely watched as a bellwether for the parliamentary vote. The prime minister campaigned in support of party candidates, but his party lost to the opposition for the fifth straight regional election since April.

"The results of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election were very bad," said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank.

"We will have a new prime minister in the next month."

He said Japan's new leader could come from either a victory by the opposition or be chosen by the ruling party to replace Aso and lead its bid to stay in power. In the Japanese political system, the head of the party that has control of the national parliament generally becomes prime minister.

Party desertion

Members of the ruling party have increasingly called for fresh leadership heading into elections. Others are already jumping ship; lawmaker Kotaro Nagasaki submitted his withdrawal from the party yesterday.

As prime minister, Aso can call for general parliamentary elections at any time, but they must take place by October. He had apparently been waiting, gambling that his political situation could improve, but the dire results of the Tokyo election seemed to have forced his hand.

Yesterday, after the Tokyo results were released, Aso met with party leaders, who later said he would likely dissolve parliament next week after it passed legislation in the next few days, according to Osamu Sakashita, a spokesman for the prime minister's office.

Recent newspaper opinion polls have suggested the opposition party is well-placed to rise to power in the election, with leader Yukio Hatoyama likely to replace Aso.

That would mean the end of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for all of the past 50 years, except a brief period in 1993.


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