By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Three years after Yukio Hatoyama led Japan's Democratic Party to a victory over its long-dominant conservative rival, the former prime minister fears the party he had helped to found has become an ally of the same vested interests it sought to destroy.
Unless the Democrats drop their call to raise taxes and resume the fight against bureaucrats and other special interests, the party will suffer a huge defeat in an election likely this year, Hatoyama said on Tuesday.
"To the same extent that the people were wildly enthusiastic, they are now disappointed. The reason is that the party has switched from fighting vested interests to standing on the side of those vested interests," the soft-spoken Hatoyama, who stepped down as premier in 2010, told Reuters.
"If things go on this way, we will suffer a huge defeat. The very raison d'etre of the Democratic Party is in question."
Hatoyama's successor, Yoshihiko Noda, scored a rare policy win this month when the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) helped enact a controversial law to double the sales tax by 2015 to curb public debt.
Analysts agree, however, that Noda's party looks set to lose an election he has promised to call "soon", spelling more policy confusion as Japan grapples with a stagnant economy, rocky ties with China and South Korea and declining global competitiveness.
A mix of conservatives, center-left lawmakers and ex-socialists, the Democratic Party of Japan surged to power in August 2009, pledging to change how Japan is governed after more than 50 years of almost non-stop LDP rule.
Three years and three prime ministers later, critics say the Democrats' pledges to reduce bureaucrats' control over policymaking and pay more heed to consumers and workers than corporations were honored mainly in the breach.
Hatoyama, the scion of a wealthy political family dubbed a "space alien" for his sometimes otherworldly views, resigned after less than a year in office. His support ratings plunged after he first raised, then dashed, local hopes that the U.S. Marine's Futenma airbase could be moved off the southern island of Okinawa, host to about half the 49,000 U.S. forces in Japan.
Hatoyama, who upset some in Washington with his call for an "East Asian Community" and a more equal partnership with its security ally the United States, said any perception he had meant to exclude the United States was wrong.
But he added that Japan's latest rows over disputed isles with China and South Korea, where memories of Tokyo's past militarism run deep, reflected a perception that Japan's focus had shifted back to America at Asia's expense.
"I think that a strong image has been created that the U.S.-Japan alliance is more important than Asia," he said in his private office, adorned with photos taken with Asian leaders.
Hatoyama, who voted against Noda's tax plan and stayed away from an opposition-sponsored no-confidence vote this month, said he hoped a candidate would emerge to challenge Noda's bid for re-election in a DPJ leadership race next month.
He said he has no plans to follow in ex-Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa's footsteps by leaving the party he helped to found in 1998.
"To leave the party after losing a leadership election done through a democratic process would not be sportsmanlike," he said. "...I want somehow to fight to restore the Democratic Party to its starting point."
(Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Nick Macfie)