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Saturday, May 10, 2003

DPJ-Liberal Party merger stalled


Staff writer

After failing to overcome internal opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan coaxed the Liberal Party into agreeing to push back the Friday deadline for merger talks in a bid to instead reach a final conclusion by the end of the month.

Both DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada and his Liberal Party counterpart, Hirohisa Fujii, insisted they were only postponing -- not cancelling -- negotiations.

But it appears unlikely that the DPJ leaders who want to push ahead with the merger will be able to change the minds of those in the party who staunchly oppose the move. The rift within the DPJ is the key sticking point, as most Liberal Party members hope to merge with the largest opposition party.

"It's no use holding a meeting (of the party's) executive council now" to discuss the issue, a senior DPJ member who supports the merger plan said. "We have to cool our heads."

Former DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, who first made the proposal in December, was forced to resign after failing to win party consensus for the plan.

Some party heavyweights, including Hatoyama and Hajime Ishii, deputy party president, believe the merger will help the DPJ gain momentum in upcoming general elections, which must be held by June 2004, and serve as an impetus to forming a coalition government among the opposition parties.

Okada and party leader Naoto Kan also support the merger, which they say will help draw public attention and lift the DPJ's approval rates.

Okada proposed that the two parties first form a parliamentary group as a precursor to a formal merger, but a majority of the DPJ's executive council opposes the idea.

Key opponents include Yukio Edano, the party's DPJ policy chief, and Diet affairs chief Yoshihiko Noda, both creating a high hurdle for merger proponents.

By Friday, Okada had interviewed 164 of the DPJ's 173 Diet members on the merger issue. He said 64 support the move, 50 oppose it and 49 are undecided.

The party has been rocked by other divisive issues, including the contentious wartime legislation bills that are currently being deliberated in the Diet. Should the merger talks end in failure, the power of DPJ executives in uniting party members could be undermined, according to Diet sources.

Speaking at a news conference after Friday's meeting of a liaison council on the merger issue, the Liberal Party's Fujii said the two groups will continue holding informal talks to avoid any overlap of candidates for general elections.

The Liberal Party has said it would discuss unification of key policy positions only if the DPJ agrees to merge. The DPJ's Edano has meanwhile argued that forging an agreement on policy matters should come before any talk of a merger.



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The Japan Times

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