January 22, 2010 / 2:31 AM / 10 years ago

Support for Japan ruling party erodes amid scandal

TOKYO (Reuters) - Only about one in three Japanese voters want the ruling party to win a majority in a mid-year poll, a survey showed on Friday, a sign of frustration that could increase pressure on a party leader to quit over a funds scandal.

Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama raises his hand to answer an opposition lawmaker's question during the lower house budget committee at Parliament in Tokyo January 21, 2010. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The scandal linked to a top Democratic Party official has eroded support for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government ahead of the election for parliament’s upper house in July or August, risking policy stalemate in the long term.

The nationwide survey by the Yomiuri newspaper and Tokyo’s Waseda University showed 35 percent of nearly 1,800 respondents said they wanted the Democrats to gain an outright majority in the election, against 54 percent who said they did not.

The percentage of voters who support the government has slid to just over 40 percent from initial highs around 70 percent, media polls show.

The Democrats want to win an outright majority in the upper house to help pass legislation smoothly. Without it, coalition dynamics could continue to complicate policy decisions because two tiny coalition partners sometimes differ on key policies.

Japanese media say Democratic Party Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa will voluntarily submit to questioning by prosecutors for about four hours on Saturday as they seek to determine the source of misreported funds used to buy property.

Ozawa, under fire after his former aides were arrested on suspicion of improperly reporting political funds, has denied intentionally breaking any laws.

He will likely tell prosecutors the money came from his own and family bank accounts, but prosecutors suspect construction firms seeking public contracts may have been involved, Japanese media said.

Some newspapers said prosecutors are probing the possibility that Ozawa himself was involved in illegal activities.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Some analysts say Ozawa, who quit the party’s top post last year over a separate scandal, will have to step down this time too, but may not decide to do so for a while and still might run the election campaign from behind the scenes.

Hatoyama has backed Ozawa, credited with engineering the party’s historic win in an election for the more powerful lower house last August, and said he hoped the party No.2 would have a chance to prove his innocence soon.

Hatoyama’s support for Ozawa could mean he would also have to quit if Ozawa resigned. But that might not be fatal for the Democrats because voters handed them victory last August more because of dissatisfaction with the party’s predecessors, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), than Hatoyama’s own appeal.

Opposition parties grilled Hatoyama this week about the scandal during parliamentary debate on an extra budget for the year to March 31. The bill is expected to be enacted next week because the opposition would risk a public backlash if they delayed the steps, aimed at bolstering Japan’s fragile economy.

Hatoyama has been criticised by the LDP for remarks they interpret as putting pressure on the prosecutors to drop the funding case but on Friday he denied any such intentions.

“I believe prosecutors conduct fair investigations,” he told parliament. “What’s needed now is to calmly monitor their investigations. Thus, my comments were not meant to put pressure on prosecutors and they have not had such an impact.”

Despite slipping voter support for the government, the main opposition LDP has not recovered much ground since their almost unbroken rule of more than five decades was ended last August.

The survey showed 74 percent said they were disappointed in the LDP, little changed from the previous survey last September.

Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds; Editing by Paul Tait

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