June 9, 2010 / 10:07 AM / in 9 years

New Japan PM Kan bolsters ruling party support

TOKYO (Reuters) - Support for Japan’s ruling Democratic Party has jumped after the launch of new Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government, improving its chances in an election likely next month, a survey showed on Wednesday.

Japan's new Prime Minister Naoto Kan (C) poses for a group photo with other cabinet members in the Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo June 8, 2010. REUTERS/Issei Kato

But the Democrats may still fall short of a majority in the upper house vote expected in July, meaning they would need help from current or new coalition partners, complicating decision-making on policies including fiscal reform.

A survey by the Kyodo news agency put support for Kan’s government at 61.5 percent, more than 40 points higher than the rating at the end of May for his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama, who quit last week.

Almost 44 percent of respondents said they backed the Democrats, up nearly 8 points from just last week.

The Kyodo poll also showed that 43.8 percent planned to vote for the Democrats in the upper house poll, up 11.2 points from the last survey at the end of May.

That compared with 21.6 percent who plan to cast their ballots for the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, ousted last year after more than a half-century of almost unbroken rule.

“If they build on the current momentum, it (an outright DPJ majority) doesn’t look as impossible as it used to, but it doesn’t look likely,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

BIG SPENDING

The Democrats need to win the upper house election to break free from a tiny coalition partner that favours big spending and avoid having to find more allies to pass bills easily.

Kan has vowed to tackle a debt that is already twice the size of GDP and his government is set to unveil this month mid- and long-term plans to reduce dependence on borrowing, as well as a strategy to engineer growth in an ageing society.

The Democrats have pledged not to raise Japan’s 5 percent sales tax before the next general election for the lower house, which must be held by late 2013, but party fiscal reformers want to state clearly their intention to do so before that.

The Kyodo survey showed 57.7 percent of respondents would support raising the consumption tax, a sign voters worried about creaking pension and health care systems are less sensitive to such a step than in the past.

Kan also faces problems managing ties with close ally the United States, since an agreement to keep a U.S. airbase on Okinawa island — forged amid controversy in Hatoyama’s final days — faces stiff opposition from residents.

Kan has said that U.S-Japan ties will remain the core of Japan’s diplomacy and that he would honour the bilateral deal while trying to reduce the burden on Okinawa, reluctant host to about half the U.S. forces in the country.

But Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa expressed doubts on how smoothly the deal would proceed.

“I do not necessarily think that we can get an agreement by the end of August from Okinawa,” Kitazawa told a news conference on Wednesday.

Washington and Tokyo have agreed to work out by end-August details on the relocation of the U.S. Marines’ Futenma airbase within Okinawa prefecture, such as the exact location and construction methods for the new facility.

Kan’s new government got off to something of a rocky start on Wednesday, when National Strategy Minister Satoshi Arai had to deny reports that a support group had misreported office expenses.

Kan’s efforts to present his government as both clean and competent while distancing himself from scandal-tainted party powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, who quit as DPJ No.2 last week, are vital to improving the Democrats’ chances at the polls.

“I think the best bet ... is that they won’t have a majority of their own and they will have to look around and see what coalition partners are available to fill the gaps,” said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Chuo University.

“The other thing that is exceedingly likely is that they win more seats than any other party,” he said. (Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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