Japan voters seek compromise on naval mission

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TOKYO, Oct 16 (Reuters) About two-thirds of Japanese want a political compromise on Tokyo's naval support of US-led operations in Afghanistan, a survey showed today, the latest to gauge public opinion on a row that could trigger an election.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda wants to enact a new law to let the navy keep refuelling US and other ships policing the Indian Ocean against drug and arms smugglers and terrorists after current enabling legislation expires on November 1.

He argues that Japan must play its role in combating terrorism in the region.

The cabinet is expected to endorse a new bill tomorrow to extend the operation for another year.

But it is almost certain that the November 1 deadline will be missed because the main opposition Democratic Party and its smaller allies, who won control of parliament's upper house in July, are opposed.

A survey conducted on October 13-14 by the Asahi newspaper showed 48 percent of voters opposed the government bill compared to 28 percent who backed it. Sixty-four per cent, however, wanted to see some sort of compromise, the paper said.

Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has rejected calls by both the government and Japan's close security ally, Washington, to rethink his stance.

Ozawa has said that instead, Tokyo could provide support for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), a UN-authorised, NATO-led peacekeeping mission battling insurgents led by the country's former Taliban rulers.

Today, though, he stressed that the best way to root out the causes of such conflicts was by reducing poverty.

Fukuda's government says taking part in ISAF would violate Japan's pacifist constitution.

ELECTION RISK Fukuda said resistance to continuing the naval support was decreasing, even among opposition parties.

''When I explain matters with the government, there are opposition lawmakers who nod,'' he told reporters.

''The situation has changed a lot. But it's not enough, so I want to do my best to keep explaining.'' The ruling bloc could override the upper house with its two-thirds majority in the lower chamber.

But doing so would risk a public backlash and potential paralysis in parliament that could trigger a snap election over a matter that appears of less concern to many voters than issues such as pension and health care reform.

Ozawa said today his party had not decided whether it would present a counter-proposal on support for Afghanistan in the form of a bill, but added that the Democrats' goal was still to have a lower house election as soon as possible.

''Our biggest goal is to have a general election as soon as possible and to win and form the next government,'' he told a news conference.

Many voters, however, are not so keen for an early poll.

Sixty percent of those responding to the October 13-14 Asahi survey said there was no need for haste in holding a lower house election, compared to 32 per cent who favour an early poll.

Both ruling and opposition camps might well be reluctant to go to the polls at a time when voters seem evenly split over which party they want to see lead a new government.

The Asahi poll showed that 33 per cent want the next administration to be led by Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party, while 32 per cent want the Democrats to take the helm.

No election for the lower house need be held until late 2009, but Japanese media have speculated that a poll could come next April, after the enactment of the state budget for 2008/09.


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