Japan’s ruling party struggles in vote

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Sunday that he will not
resign, even as early results showed his Democratic Party heading for a major
political setback in a midterm election widely seen as a referendum on the
struggling nine-month-old government.

With many districts reporting at least 60 per cent of the
vote counted in the Upper House election, the Democrats were trailing behind
the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

The results, if they hold up with further tallying, would
be an embarrassing reversal for the Democrats, which last year ended the
Liberal Democrats’ long grip on power with a historic election victory, but
then got mired in money scandals and a dispute over an American air base.

Opinion polls had predicted a tough race for the Democrats,
who suffered as the popularity of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama
plummeted. Mr. Hatoyama was widely criticized for indecisiveness and weak

Last month, the party voted in Mr. Kan, who quickly lost
popularity after proposing an increase of the national consumption tax.

The election Sunday affects only the Upper House and not
the more powerful Lower House, which chooses the prime minister and where the
Democrats enjoy a comfortable majority. But a failure to control the Upper
House could result in a split Parliament, possibly making it difficult for the
Democrats to advance their agenda of strengthening social welfare and clipping
the wings of the nation’s powerful bureaucracy.

To win a majority, the Democrats need to secure 60 seats.
But early results on Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, showed the Democrats
with 28 seats to 33 for the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, with 45 seats
still up for grabs. Political experts described the results as a protest by
disenchanted voters against the Democrats rather than an embrace of the LDP,
which has fallen into disarray since losing power last year.

“Voters are going to the polls asking themselves, ‘Should
we give them a second chance?’ ” said Tadaoki Nogami, an independent political
analyst. “The Democrats are not doing well, but look at the alternatives.”

If the Democrats fail to gain a majority in the Upper
House, they may be forced to seek a coalition partner.

Another possibility is a grand coalition with the LDP,
whose election platform was very similar to the Democrats’, including the call
for a consumption tax increase. Failure to form a coalition could result in
renewed political paralysis, and possibly pressure to dissolve parliament and
call for new elections, political experts said.

But a Democratic official said Sunday that the party may
instead ask opposition parties to cooperate on a policy-by-policy basis,
Reuters reported.

Voters casting ballots at a fire station in Yokohama, a
city outside Tokyo, agreed that the Democrats had stumbled since taking office.
But they were divided on whether to support them.

Mineko Tokumasu, a 79-year-old tobacco shop owner, said the
party should be given a reprieve.

“I think it’s too early to judge the Democratic Party,” she
said. “You cannot change something like the bureaucracy in just nine months.”

Other voters said they were already fed up with the
country’s new leaders.

“Hatoyama could not gain the confidence of the people
because he just talked about ideals but lacked the skill to put them into
reality,” said Yoshifumi Shimura, 56, a transportation industry worker.

He said he voted for the LDP. after supporting the
Democrats in the last election.

In fact, many had expected this election to be an easy
victory for the Democrats, who had seen a rebound in popularity after Mr. Kan,
a plain-spoken former social activist, replaced the unpopular Mr. Hatoyama, who
suddenly resigned last month.

But Mr. Kan saw his approval
ratings quickly drop, first by proposing a tax increase ahead of an election —
a political no-no in almost any country — and then by seeming to waffle when
the proposal proved predictably unpopular among Japanese voters.

The apparent flip-flopping
appeared to raise broader doubts here about whether the inexperienced Democrats
can actually turn themselves into an effective governing party.

Winning confidence on this point has been a challenge for a
party that until last year had been a seemingly permanent opposition group made
up of L.D.P. defectors and former socialists.