TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan should extend its support for U.S.-led war efforts in Afghanistan, a senior opposition figure said on Thursday, contradicting his party leader in a sign of divisions in the opposition after its huge election victory.
Seiji Maehara, who led the Democratic Party until 2006, said that given the importance of ties with Washington, Tokyo’s closest security ally, Japanese ships should continue to provide fuel and goods for coalition warships in the Indian Ocean.
“If you think about the Japan-U.S. relationship, it’s important for Japan to participate in the fight against terrorism,” Maehara, considered a security hawk, told Reuters.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is seeking to extend a temporary law that allows the Japanese naval operation, but the opposition parties, which seized control of the upper house in Sunday’s election, can block the legislation.
Abe’s coalition still has a huge majority in the more powerful lower chamber, which elects the prime minister, allowing him to stay in power and override any upper house defeat.
Ichiro Ozawa, current leader of the Democrats who are now the largest force in the upper house, has said the party would oppose the extension, prompting concerns in Washington.
“I am hopeful that the measures have been so effective ... in combating terrorism that when the party looks at the issues, they will conclude it’s a very positive thing and a bipartisan issue,” U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer said this week, adding that he hoped to see Ozawa over the issue.
Maehara denied media reports that Ozawa had refused a request from Schieffer for a meeting, adding that Ozawa was in fact looking forward to seeing the ambassador.
Maehara, 45, also flatly ruled out speculation that he might leave the party due to disagreement with Ozawa over the naval operation extension.
The Democrats are often portrayed as a fractious congregation of conservative hawks and socialist doves. Political analysts say the LDP might now try to woo Maehara and the other conservatives to join the ruling camp.
Maehara said he would ultimately follow Ozawa’s decision, but urged the Democrats to use their new-found power to win concessions from the LDP, such as more disclosure, so that his party could back an extension of the naval mission.
He said the party should actively propose legislation in the upper house to prove itself a viable alternative to the LDP-led coalition, building up voter trust rather than seeking an early dissolution of the lower house.
No lower house election need be held until 2009 and, following Sunday’s trouncing, Maehara said, the coalition would clearly try to avoid an early dissolution.