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Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Opposition merger talks falter

Liberal Party chief rejects Diet group offer from DPJ

Staff writer

Following six months of negotiations, merger talks between the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Party broke down Monday, with Liberal Party President Ichiro Ozawa rejecting the DPJ's proposal to form a joint Diet group as a first step.

News photo
Liberal Party and Democratic Party of Japan leaders speak to reporters at the Diet building.

The DPJ, which has been beset by internal feuding -- between anti-Ozawa and promerger lawmakers -- submitted the Diet group proposal in the hope that it would help smooth out the differences between the two groups.

For Ozawa, however, the upcoming general election appears to count for more than political unity.

He rejected the proposal during a meeting Monday afternoon at the Diet building with his DPJ counterpart, Naoto Kan.

He stated that the formation of a joint Diet group would force his party to abandon some of its key policies, while the two parties would still have to campaign separately in elections.

"It would greatly undermine the Liberal Party's ability to sell our uniqueness to voters," Ozawa said told a news conference after the meeting.

He also said the DPJ proposal did not include any specific reference to the timing of a future merger. He was particularly critical of that there was no reference to whether the merger might take place before or after the next House of Representatives election, which must be held by June 2004.

For Kan, meanwhile, the botched merger effort is expected to have an adverse effect on his basic strategy for winning the next Lower House election and wresting power from the ruling coalition, Diet observers said.

Both Kan and Ozawa pledged to continue talks to avoid any overlapping of candidates in Lower House single-seat constituencies.

"There is no change in our policy of joining forces with the Liberal Party to topple the administration," Kan stressed during the news conference. "As for (single-seat) constituencies, we'll make it our party policy to field only one candidate (jointly with the Liberal Party) and make efforts to achieve this end."

The extent of this cooperation is unclear, however, with Ozawa saying there is "a limit" to what the Liberal Party can do in this regard.

Kan has argued that cooperation among opposition parties is the key to beating the ruling triumvirate, pointing out that in the 2000 Lower House election, the four main opposition parties received more votes in total than the ruling camp in the proportional representation part of the ballot but lost in many single-seat constituencies.

The merger was originally proposed last year by then DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama. The plan was maintained by Kan and DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada after Hatoyama was ousted.

Since then, the merger talks have been a constant source of internal conflict within the DPJ.

While conservative party heavyweights such as Hatoyama and DPJ Vice President Hajime Ishii have supported the plan, many have been opposed, not just because of policy differences but also because of Ozawa's past record in masterminding mergers and dissolving political parties.

Ozawa, once a secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, left the LDP in 1993 and helped formed Japan's first non-LDP ruling coalition in the postwar period.

But this coalition broke up in 1994 over internal conflict between anti-Ozawa and pro-Ozawa groups.

Ozawa, who helped form and headed the largest opposition group, the now-defunct Shinshinto, in 1994, was also at the center of an internal conflict that led to its breakup in 1998.

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The Japan Times

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