Mr Naoto Kan is still fighting for his political life ahead of the Democratic Party leadership vote on Sept 14, despite his support slipping following his party's defeat in July upper house elections. -- PHOTO: AP
TOKYO - A CANDIDATE backed by Japan's ruling Democratic Party won a local election late on Sunday, giving temporary relief to struggling Prime Minister Naoto Kan as he faces a potential challenge to the party leadership.
But Mr Kan, his support slipping following his party's defeat in July upper house elections, is still fighting for his political life ahead of the Democratic Party leadership vote on Sept 14. In the first electoral test for the Democrats since their coalition lost its upper house majority in July, Shuichi Abe, who had worked in a government unit focusing on cutting waste, won Sunday's gubernatorial election in Nagano prefecture, north-west of Tokyo.
'This is big for the Democratic party. It will be the first step toward rebuilding,' said Jun Azumi, chairman of the party's election campaign committee. The Democrats, desperate to avoid another election setback, had sent popular cabinet ministers to Nagano to support Mr Abe, whose principal rival was backed by the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
While the local election victory could mean a respite for Mr Kan, his Democratic Party faces political deadlock unless it can find new allies to help enact bills as the government struggles to curb Japan's mountain of public debt, nearly twice the size of its US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) economy, and engineer sustainable growth.
He may also face a challenge from party powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa and his supporters in the vote for party chief next month. Mr Ozawa was sidelined during the upper house election in an effort to woo voters put off by his scandal-tainted image.
Mr Kan is so far the only declared candidate for party chief, but several groups within the party have been holding behind-the-scenes meetings and media reports said some are considering fielding rival candidates. Banri Kaieda, a former party policy chief, has told the Ozawa camp of his willingness to run, weekend media reports said. Voter support for Mr Kan's government has fallen sharply since he took office in June. But polls show most respondents see no need for Mr Kan - Japan's fifth premier in three years - to quit, a sign of rising irritation with revolving-door prime ministers. -- REUTERS