Japan opposition gets boost from Osaka mayor win

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TOKYO, Nov 19 (Reuters) A candidate backed by Japan's main opposition Democratic Party has won an election for mayor of the western city of Osaka, giving the party a boost after a debacle in which its leader threatened to quit but was persuaded to stay.

Former TV announcer Kunio Hiramatsu, 59, defeated incumbent Junichi Seki, 72, who ran in yesterday's election with the support of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party.

''The significance of this victory by a candidate supported by our party in the first major election since the advent of the Fukuda administration is great ... and will be a big springboard for the next general election,'' the Democrats' Secretary-General, Yukio Hatoyama, said in a statement issued late yesterday.

The centrist party's image took a hit this month when its leader, Ichiro Ozawa, discussed a coalition with Fukuda, tendered his resignation when party executives rejected the idea, and finally decided to stay on after Democratic lawmakers, fearing he might defect to the ruling camp, begged him not to quit.

The confusing political theatre dented public support for the Democrats just months after they and smaller allies won control of parliament's upper house in an election, giving the opposition power to delay legislation.

''Given the terrible situation after Ozawa's actions, it (the election win) is good news for them and bad news for the LDP and the New Komeito in particular,'' said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, noting that the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, has long been strong in Osaka.

The standoff in parliament, which has stalled a bill to resume a Japanese naval mission in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan, has prompted speculation that Fukuda will call an early election for parliament's powerful lower house.

The victory for Hiramatsu, who was also backed by the tiny opposition People's New Party and Social Democrats, could well increase Fukuda's wariness about calling an early snap poll, since winning urban votes will be vital in the next election.

No election for the chamber, where the ruling bloc currently has a two-thirds majority that would allow it to override the upper house to enact laws, need be held until late 2009.

Fukuda took over in September after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, quit abruptly following a year plagued by scandals among cabinet ministers that contributed to the July election loss.

Fukuda, 71, has headaches of his own including a defence ministry scandal centring on links between a former top bureaucrat and a former defence contractor who was recently arrested on suspicion of embezzlement.

LDP heavyweights are loathe to drop the idea of a grand coalition, since the divided parliament will persist at least until the next upper house election in 2010 unless the opposition wins control of the lower chamber and forms a government.

''It was good that the two party leaders talked and tried to do something about the political stalemate,'' former prime minister Yoshiro Mori said in an interview published today in the Nikkei business daily. ''I don't think that this is the end.'' Reuters SKB VP0902

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