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Abe asked to step down

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2007

TOKYO — Japan's opposition, savoring a spectacular election win, demanded yesterday that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resign, opposed his support for U.S. foreign policy and promised to gain leadership of the world's second-largest economy.

A defiant Mr. Abe clung to his job despite Sunday's humiliating loss in elections to the upper house of parliament, warning of a political vacuum if he were to quit and instead announced he would make changes soon in his scandal-riddled Cabinet.

"I cannot run away now," Mr. Abe told reporters as he dismissed mounting public pressure to step down. "We cannot afford a political vacuum."

"Japan is in the midst of reforms that must be carried forward," he said.

However, the ruling party's No. 2 man, Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa, announced he would resign.

Voters on Sunday stripped the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner of their majority in parliament's 242-seat upper chamber. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) became the No. 1 party in the upper house — heralding an era of political deadlock with the LDP, which remains in control of the lower house.

The DPJ was quick to assert its newfound clout, ridiculing Mr. Abe's decision to stay on as prime minister and questioning some of his most basic policies.

"It's clear that the nation has given Mr. Abe a clear 'no.' How he can ignore that is absolutely baffling," acting party chief Naoto Kan said in a televised debate. He spoke on behalf of party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who was recovering from a cold.

"The public has given us a mandate," Mr. Kan said. "We will see in lower house elections which party they want in power."

Another DPJ leader, Yukio Hatoyama, said the party opposes extending Japan's naval mission to support U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. The Japanese navy has provided fuel for coalition warships in the Indian Ocean since 2001; the current mission expires in November.

"We have always been fundamentally opposed to extending," Mr. Hatoyama said. "The upper house elections have shown the country agrees, and so we will be expected to keep that line."

The Indian Ocean mission is part of Tokyo's recent attempt to raise its international profile. Japan also sent noncombat troops to help rebuild southern Iraq.

The opposition party criticized both operations, saying Japan's international efforts should be channeled through the United Nations, not the United States.

The election is a dramatic reversal of the support Mr. Abe enjoyed when he took over from the popular Junichiro Koizumi less than a year ago. The opposition appears closer than ever to ending the Liberal Democrats' virtually uninterrupted grip on power since its founding in 1955.

Under Mr. Ozawa, the DPJ made gains on a reform platform. Like the ruling party, Mr. Ozawa advocates an expanded role in international peacekeeping for Japan's military, but criticized what he says is Mr. Abe's blind support of U.S. foreign policy.

Still, the opposition would have to prove its mandate in elections in parliament's lower house, which Mr. Abe is not required to call for another two years. Mr. Abe rebuffed suggestions yesterday that he should call snap elections for the lower chamber.