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Japan's ruling party could lose power in elections

SEVERAL opposition parties planned a no-confidence vote today ahead of parliament's dissolution next week and fresh elections in August that could end the governing party's decades-long rule.

The Democratic Party of Japan and three other opposition parties jointly submitted a no-confidence motion to parliament yesterday, but it was to have little real effect other than to further embarrass Prime Minister Taro Aso's Liberal Democratic Party.

Aso's ruling party was dealt a crushing defeat over the weekend, losing its majority in a Tokyo municipal election while the opposition made substantive gains. Aso announced yesterday that he was dissolving parliament next week and scheduling elections for Aug. 30, increasing the likelihood that the main opposition could take over the powerful lower house of Parliament. The upper house is already controlled by the opposition bloc.

The Liberal Democrats, which have governed Japan for the past 50 years, except a brief period in 1993, have been struggling to maintain their grip on power.

Over the past few years, the party has seen a revolving door of prime ministers, with Aso's two predecessors lasting less than a year. Aso, too, has failed to revitalize the party, which many say has been in power too long to effectively energize voters seeking change in the face of the financial downturn.

"It's time to seek the public's mandate. The issue here is which party can really protect the people's lives and the country," Aso said. "I'm not going to run away."

He said he would dissolve parliament's lower house next week.

The Liberal Democrats and their coalition partner lost their majority in Sunday's ballots for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, the local parliament for Japan's capital and most populated prefecture. While the results do not directly affect the central government, it was closely watched as a bellwether for the national elections. It was also the fifth straight regional election loss for Aso's party since April.

"We will keep our momentum going," said Democratic Party executive Seiji Maehara, vowing to score another major win in the key national elections.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a ruling party member, blamed Aso for the loss, and predicted similar results in national elections.

Aso's popularity, which has remained low at 20 percent for the past several months, has been hurt by a series of scandals, including accusations that one of his ministers turned up drunk to a news conference. Aso has also embarrassed himself, repeatedly making reading mistakes and remarks that angered the public - he criticized the elderly for racking up medical expenses and being a tax burden.

Members of the ruling party have called for fresh leadership ahead of national elections, while 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.

"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."

Recent newspaper opinion polls have suggested the opposition party is well-placed to make considerable gains or even rise to power in the national election, with its leader Yukio Hatoyama likely to replace Aso.

Still, there would need to be a sea change in voter support for the opposition to take power. The Liberal Democrats currently have 303 seats in the 480-seat lower house, and its partner Komeito has 31. The Democratic Party has just 112.


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