New Japan opposition head revives election chances

By Chisa Fujioka

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's opposition Democratic Party has revived its chances of ousting Prime Minister Taro Aso's party in a looming election after replacing its scandal-tainted leader, media polls showed on Monday.

A Democratic victory would end more than five decades of almost unbroken Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule and raise the possibility of breaking through a political deadlock that has stymied policy implementation in a recession.

The Democrats' new leader, Yukio Hatoyama, is struggling with an image as a close ally of predecessor Ichiro Ozawa, whose scandal had narrowed the Democrats' lead over the LDP before a general election that media speculate may be held in August.

Still, a weekend survey by the daily Yomiuri newspaper showed 41 percent of voters planned to cast their ballots for the Democrats in the election, up from 30 percent in a previous poll.

That compared with 27 percent for the LDP, unchanged from the earlier poll.

"Voters are thinking, the Democrats are fine as long as Ozawa is not the leader," said Masaki Taniguchi, associate professor of Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo.

"Hatoyama won't be hugely popular among voters, but for those fed up with the LDP, they now have nothing to hold them back from voting for the Democrats."

The Democrats posted gains in other newspaper surveys as well, although an initial poll on Sunday by Kyodo news agency had shown only a tiny bounce.

A poll by the Asahi newspaper showed 38 percent of voters planned to vote for the Democrats, up from 32 percent and against 25 percent for the LDP, down two points.

The Democrats have promised to reduce the decades-old bureaucrats' control of policy which critics say distorts government spending and favours vested interests, cut waste and give financial support for families with children.

PUPPET-MASTER OZAWA?

Hatoyama, 62, on Sunday picked predecessor Ozawa to oversee campaign strategy in the upcoming election and tapped the popular rival he defeated in Saturday's leadership race as his No. 2. The election must be held by October.

Analysts said Hatoyama, beginning his second stint as leader, would need to shake off an image that he was being controlled by Ozawa, who had fallen out of favour with voters and stepped down last week to rescue the party's chances of winning at the polls.

"The big problem Hatoyama faces is if the media beats him up as a puppet of Ozawa," said Gerry Curtis, a Columbia University professor and expert in Japanese politics.

"That will hurt him, so he has to figure out a way to use Ozawa's election skills without creating this impression."

While the Democrats had restored support, some analysts said the blow from Ozawa's scandal, in which a close aide was arrested for illegal fundraising charges, meant a clear election outcome was still unlikely.

An indecisive result could fail to resolve the political deadlock that emerged in 2007 when the Democrats, along with smaller allies, won control of parliament's upper house, allowing them to stall legislation.

"They've come back to where they were before the scandal, but I still think it will be difficult for the Democrats to win a majority on their own," said Hirotaka Futatsuki, an independent commentator.

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Jerry Norton)

Article Published: 18/05/2009