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Japanese opposition unites with an eye to power

January 26, 2009

Japan’s opposition Democratic Party is often seen as a fractious bunch prone to policy and personal feuds, but with the scent of election victory in the air, party leaders are preaching a unified message to their troops: don’t let down your guard.

Naoto Kan

“We have decided not to make predictions about the election,” Naoto Kan, a senior party executive told me last week. “The important thing is to keep on our toes and make preparations, because we are the ones who are asking the people to choose us.”

A spate of media surveys have suggested the decade-old Democratic Party of Japan has its best shot ever at ousting unpopular Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a general election that must be held this year.

That would end the conservative party’s almost unbroken rein for more than five decades and bring to power a government pledged to reduce bureaucrats’ grip on policy-making as well as adopt a more diplomatic stance more independent of Tokyo’s closest security ally, the United States.

Public support for Aso, Japan’s third prime minister since the last general election in 2005, has sagged below 20 percent after a series of policy flip-flops and missteps.

Asked which party they would vote for in the next election, 40 percent of voters opted for the Democrats against 21 percent for the LDP, a poll by the Nikkei business daily showed.

Still, caution remains the byword for the Democrats, whose fortunes had been on the rise until they suffered a thrashing in a 2005 election for parliament’s powerful lower house at the hands of charismatic premier Junichiro Koizumi, who turned the poll into a referendum for his reform agenda.

“What’s most important is to realise that when you think you will win, that’s when you can lose,” Hirohisa Fujii, 76, a told opposition adviser, told me at a party convention this month.

Former party leader Katsuya Okada allowed himself a glimmer of optimism, saying if the party won, it was likely to win big, but added a warning against complacency.

“It’s better to be cautious … If younger people are too relaxed, they’ll make mistakes,” Okada, who resigned after the 2005 defeat, told me recently.

“There are not very many reasons why the LDP would win. They have become distant from the people and it would be very hard to recover under Aso,” Okada said.

“But they are waiting for the Democrats to make a misstep … so we need to take care.”

Photo credit: Democratic Party senior executive Naoto Kan; REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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