TOKYO, JAPAN - UNPOPULAR Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso's woes mounted on Monday after the ruling bloc lost a closely watched regional vote and a survey showed the main opposition party leading ahead of a looming general election.
Mr Aso's popularity has tumbled as he struggles with a deepening recession and a fractious party, and fresh surveys suggested the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) may well win an election for parliament's lower house expected by September.
That would end more than five decades of nearly unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and bring to power a party pledged to reduce bureaucratic clout over policies and take a diplomatic stance more independent of ally Washington.
In Sunday's election for governor of the rural northern prefecture of Yamagata, DPJ-backed Mieko Yoshimura, 57, narrowly defeated incumbent Hiroshi Saito, 51, who ran with the support of the LDP and its junior coalition partner.
Japanese media and analysts had cast the contest between the two nominal independents as a face-off between the ruling and opposition parties, although neither was formally endorsed by any party, and the opposition victory was considered a blow to Mr Aso.
A series of policy flip-flops and gaffes have pushed his approval ratings to below 20 per cent, a figure reaffirmed by two poll published by Japanese newspapers on Monday.
Asked which party they plan to cast their ballots for in the next general election, 40 per cent of voters opted for the Democrats against 21 per cent for the LDP, a survey by the Nikkei business daily showed.
The DPJ, a mix of former LDP members, one-time socialists and younger conservatives, has pledged to put immediate priority on creating jobs, strengthening the social safety net and boosting domestic demand to rescue the economy from recession.
DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa last week went to Yamagata to campaign for Yoshimura, who had criticised the pain caused by structural reforms under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2001-2006.
The Democrats and smaller allies took control of parliament's less powerful upper house in 2007, allowing them to delay legislation and stymie policy implementation.
Mr Aso's two predecessors quit abruptly after they failed to break the political deadlock and saw their popularity slide amid policy missteps and scandals, making Mr Aso Japan's third prime minister since the last general election in 2005. -- REUTERS