Japanese Premier's Unpopularity Creates Opening for Opposition Party

Polls show that Prime Minister Taro Aso's popularity has collapsed over the past six months because of his government's response to the recession.
Polls show that Prime Minister Taro Aso's popularity has collapsed over the past six months because of his government's response to the recession. (By Katsumi Kasahara -- Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TOKYO, March 24 -- Corruption is rivaling incompetence as the primary scourge of Japanese politics, as polls show that voters regard their political leaders with a level of dissatisfaction that borders on contempt.

The popularity of Prime Minister Taro Aso has collapsed over the past six months because of his government's halting and incoherent response to a global recession that continues to punish the world's second-largest economy. Polls show that nine out of 10 voters disapprove of Aso.

This has created a historic opportunity for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and its veteran leader, Ichiro Ozawa, to take control of the government and end more than a half-century of dominance by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The law requires an election by September, and polls have shown that Ozawa's party could win.

But Ozawa's prospects of becoming prime minister dimmed considerably Tuesday with the indictment of his chief aide, Takanori Okubo, in a political fundraising scandal.

"Just when the public thought that Ozawa could do something positive, it found out about this," said Minoru Morita, a political analyst in Tokyo. "People are feeling huge hopelessness."

Tokyo prosecutors charged that Okubo, who was arrested earlier this month, violated campaign finance laws by accepting about $360,000 in donations from a construction company and then falsifying the source. The money went to Ozawa's political fundraising organization and was donated over several years in an apparent attempt by the company to secure public-works contracts in his political stronghold.

Several hours after the indictment was announced, a tearful Ozawa apologized to the public and his party at a news conference but said that he has done nothing wrong and that he would stay on as party leader.

"In order to meet the expectations of the people and of the Democratic Party, I am determined to battle to the end," Ozawa said.

Some members of his party, though, want him to quit.

"The people's expectations of the Democratic Party are vanishing," Katsuhiko Yokomitsu said at a party meeting Tuesday, according to Kyodo news service. Yokomitsu said a new face would help in the election.

Ninety-one percent of voters are dissatisfied with the state of politics in Japan, according to a poll released last week by the Asahi newspaper. Much of the discontent seems driven by the pounding that the export-dependent Japan has taken in the global economic downturn.

Profits and jobs at some of the world's most respected companies, including Toyota and Canon, have disappeared at a record pace, as a higher yen has raised prices of Japanese goods just as demand for them is collapsing.


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