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Low Season For Ldp's Open-market Plans

Aug 6 2007 (TODAY)

Fearing their government cares more about big business than small farmers,
Japan's rural dwellers are deserting the ruling conservative camp, leaving
its plan to open up the agriculture market in doubt.

With the opposition now in control of one house of Parliament, experts say
the government may find it harder to achieve its goal of inking more free
trade deals and finding common ground in the stalled World Trade
Organization talks.

The defeat Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)
suffered in the July 29 upper house election was mainly caused by its loss
of seats in rural communities, once its bastions.

Tokyo tightly shields its farmers, a contested issue in global trade
talks. It uses tariffs and quotas to block virtually all competition
against its rice industry, which it argues holds a special place in the
national culture.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa's Democratic Party has called for a model
closer to the one seen in the European Union, that is, opening up the
market but subsidising farm households. Under Mr Abe, the government has
started free trade talks with Australia. If a deal is reached, it will be
Japan's first with a major agricultural exporter, at the risk of inflaming
Japanese farmers.

Japan is also considering starting talks on a possible free trade pact
with the United States, which has long prodded its close ally to open its
agricultural sector. But experts said the prospects of Japan compromising
are now even less certain.

"After the devastating election defeat in agricultural communities, any
prime minister from the LDP who succeeds Abe may have to review the farm
reforms," said Keio University's professor Yoshihide Soya. - AFP