Gasoline tax turns more voters off Fukuda

By Isabel Reynolds, Reuters

TOKYO — Support for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has slumped to about 20 percent after his ruling coalition reinstated an unpopular tax on gasoline and raised health care fees for some elderly, media polls showed on Friday.

The ruling parties reimposed a tax of 25.1 yen (24.1 U.S. cents) per liter on petrol this week, upsetting motorists, who formed long lines at petrol stations to fill up ahead of the price rise amid a series of public holidays.

Fears about a new public health insurance system that means higher charges for some people over 75 have also sparked a backlash against the ruling coalition among the elderly, who are traditionally backers of Fukuda’s Liberal Democratic Party.

In a poll carried out after the government rammed a bill through parliament reinstating the gasoline tax from May 1, Kyodo news agency found that only 19.8 percent of voter supported Fukuda, down 6.8 percentage points from a survey in April.

A similar poll in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found support at 20 percent, while a poll in the Nikkei financial daily put support at 21 percent, the lowest for a prime minister since February 2001, shortly before then prime minister Yasuhiro Mori was forced to step down.

Calls for Fukuda’s resignation have emerged from within his own party, and the main opposition Democratic Party, which along with smaller parties controls the upper house of parliament, is pushing for an early general election.

But influential LDP lawmaker Kaoru Yosano told Reuters this week that calling an election anytime soon would be suicidal for the long-ruling party. He said Fukuda should stay on and try to revive his popularity.

No election is required until September 2009.

The three polls all put the Democrats ahead of the LDP as a party. Support for the LDP came in at 24.3 percent, Kyodo said, compared with 30.3 percent for the Democrats, whose lawmakers scuffled with parliamentary officials in an attempt to block passage of the bill.

The figures will buoy the Democrats, who argue that the tax, which raises 2.6 trillion yen (US$25 billion) annually to fund road projects, is wasteful and a burden on consumers.

The tax law lapsed at the end of March due to the political stalemate in parliament, but the government forced the renewal through by passing it a second time in the more powerful lower house with a two-thirds majority.

Democratic Party leaders had threatened to submit an embarrassing no-confidence motion against Fukuda to the upper house over the tax and may still go ahead after May 13, when the government plans to use its two-thirds majority again to pass a 10-year road construction plan.

Critics say the bill contradicts Fukuda’s own proposal to stop earmarking the tax for roads.

Higher world oil prices meant the price of petrol jumped by as much as 30 yen per liter when the tax was reimposed on Thursday, Japanese media reported.