Japan lower house OK's naval mission, battle looms

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TOKYO, Nov 13 (Reuters) The lower house of Japan's parliament today approved a bill to resume naval support for US-led operations in Afghanistan, setting the stage for a confrontation with the opposition-controlled upper house that could spark an early general election.

The approval of the bill to let Japan's navy resume refuelling US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean for drug runners, gun smugglers and suspected terrorists comes just days ahead of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's visit to Washington, where US officials are keen for operations to restart soon.

But with the main opposition Democratic Party and its small allies pledging to block the bill in the upper house, where they have a majority, prospects for the navy to resume the mission are uncertain.

Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party, could use their two-thirds majority in the lower house to override the upper house, but doing so could prompt the opposition to adopt a rare censure motion against the prime minister in the upper chamber.

The motion would be non-binding, but political analysts say it could spark an early election if Fukuda judges the time is right to take on the Democrats, who were weakened after leader Ichiro Ozawa offered to quit but was talked into staying on.

Fukuda, in an interview with the Financial Times, said he would give a ''fairly high level of guarantee'' that he would not call an election until after a Group of Eight (G8) summit which Japan is to host in July next year.

But he added that the timing of an election ''all depends on the behaviour and thinking of the opposition''.

Ozawa discussed with Fukuda this month a possible coalition with the ruling bloc, then tendered his resignation in a huff when Democratic Party executives rejected the idea.

But he decided to stay in his post after members of the party -- an often fractious group of former LDP members, ex-Socialists and hawkish lawmakers -- begged him not to quit.

POLITICAL DRAMA Asked about the possibility of an early election, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference: ''My understanding is that Prime Minister Fukuda is trying his best to deal with matters at hand and is not thinking of dissolving parliament for the time being.'' No election for the powerful lower house is required until 2009 but the standoff in the divided parliament has raised expectations of an early snap poll.

A public opinion survey by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper showed 51 per cent thought Japan's naval mission should be resumed, compared to 40 percent who did not.

Japan's latest political drama -- critics would say farce -- has confused voters just months after the Democrats and small allies won an upper house poll in July, raising hopes among Democratic Party supporters that the party might win the next lower house poll and lead the next government.

The Yomiuri survey showed support for the Democrats rose 4.5 points to 22.5 per cent, while that for the LDP slipped 3.5 points to 34.3 per cent. Support for Fukuda's cabinet in the poll slid about seven points to 52.2 per cent.

A majority of respondents, however, said they thought Ozawa should have stuck to his decision to quit.

REUTERS CS DS1105

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