07/12/2007, 00.00
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Campaigning starts for crucial July 29 Japan polls

Half of the seats in the upper house are up for renewal. As a result of a series of scandals that touched his government Prime Minister Abe’s popularity is at its lowest since he took office. A defeat might not mean an end of the current coalition government but it might force Abe to quit.

Tokyo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Campaigning has begun to elect 121 of the 242 members of the upper house of Japan's parliament. For many analysts the July 29 pool is a crucial test for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who took office last September for the Liberal Democratic Party. However his popularity has plummeted after two ministers resigned from his cabinet and one committed suicide.

Mr Abe began his term in office with a cabinet's approval rating of 60 per cent after travelling to Beijing and Seoul within days of taking office to try to rebuild the country's troubled ties with its near neighbours. But that was then. This week is now and his cabinet's rating sank around 30 per cent.

Two months ago it was revealed that, over the years, Japan's government had lost the 50 million records of pension contributions made by ordinary people.

Mr Abe shook up the Social Insurance Agency, replacing those officials responsible for the problem and has reorganised the pension plan for 2008 but this might not be enough to limit voters’ anger.

In the end the prime minister might pay for a series of scandals and errors involving his ministers.

In early July Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma quit in the face of a public outcry over his comments that the 1945 US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ‘couldn't be helped.”

Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, already under  investigation for campaign contributions he accepted from contractors before he was picked, killed himself in May just a few hours before a senatorial committee was to hear him on his management of the ministry.

In another scandal Norihiko Akagi, Matsuoka’s successor, has come under fire over allegations that he falsely booked millions of yen in spending for political offices near his parents’ house.

Back in January Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa caused a public outcry when he called women “baby-making machines.”

His administrative-reform minister and the head of his tax panel both quit in December over questionable financial dealings.

Buoyed by Abe's woes the main opposition Democratic Party is touting the upper house poll as a “political battle [. . .] that will become the first step towards greatly altering our country's politics.”

The current coalition government has a majority in the more powerful lower house, which chooses the prime minister. A defeat in the upper house may not cause the fall of the government but it might however force Abe to resign.

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