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Thursday, July 24, 2003

DPJ and Liberal Party agree to merge


Staff writer

In preparation for the upcoming Lower House general election, top leaders of the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Party agreed Wednesday that the two opposition parties will merge by the end of September.

DPJ President Naoto Kan and his Liberal Party counterpart, Ichiro Ozawa, reached the accord during a meeting at a Tokyo hotel. According to a written memorandum between Kan and Ozawa, the Liberal Party will be disbanded and absorbed by the DPJ, which will be the surviving party.

All of the policies, current executive lineup and party code of the DPJ will remain intact, which means the total dissolution of the Liberal Party.

The Liberal Party, established in 1998 and led for its entire existence by Ozawa, is known for radical free-market economic policy proposals and calls for Japan to play a more active security role under the auspices of the United Nations.

But for Ozawa, survival of the party ranks in the next election appeared to be the top priority.

Winning the upcoming election and thereby pushing the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition out of power is the ultimate and only factor behind the decision to dissolve the Liberal Party, Ozawa told a news conference.

Ozawa indicated that he would also urge the Social Democratic Party, another opposition party, to form an alliance with DPJ-Liberal Party camp to counter the ruling coalition.

The agreement between Kan and Ozawa still needs to be endorsed by their respective party organizations.

But senior executives of the DPJ had already approved Kan's merger plan before he entered the talks with Ozawa on Wednesday evening.

Kan told reporters after the meeting with Ozawa that the DPJ will soon hold a general meeting of its members in both houses of the Diet to seek party consensus on the merger.

"I have been talking with our party members, including the ones who hade been skeptical about the merger," Kan said. "But I get the feeling that party members now support the idea if the DPJ takes the lead in the merger."

If realized, the plan would boost the number of DPJ members in the Diet from 172 to 202. But it is not yet clear how many of the 30 Diet members in the Liberal Party will follow Ozawa's top-down decision.

The DPJ is now the second-largest force in the Diet after the ruling LDP, which boasts 355 Diet members.

Although Kan and Ozawa had given up on merger talks earlier this year, they were apparently prompted to restart these talks amid widespread speculation that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will dissolve the Lower House to hold a general election as early as November.

Kan said the timing of the merger was "the latest it could go," under these circumstances. "It had to be now if we were to compete together in the election."

The next general election, Kan predicted, will be an election in which voters will choose a government from the two major groups -- an expanded DPJ and the LDP-led coalition.

"Each group should present its own manifesto and have the voters choose which government they want," Kan said.

Even if the consolidation is realized, the ruling coalition, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, will still retain a solid majority in both the Lower House and Upper House.

But consolidation will likely provide the DPJ with much-needed momentum going into the general election, as the DPJ and the Liberal Party have been at loggerheads over eliminating the overlapping of candidates in single-seat constituencies.

The previous merger talks stalled in May. The failure was blamed on staunch opposition from many DPJ members who feared that Ozawa would cause confrontations among party members.

The DPJ includes many conservative lawmakers originally from Shinshinto, which had been the largest opposition party but broke apart in 1997 due to internal confrontations over Ozawa's high-handed leadership.

Now, however, Kan appears to be confident that he can keep control of the party and minimize Ozawa's influence after consolidation. Indeed, Kan looked upbeat on Tuesday night, a few hours after NHK first broke the news of the resumption of the merger talks.

The Liberal Party once tried to rock the DPJ by cooperating with some pro-merger DPJ members -- most notably former party president Yukio Hatoyama -- who were trying to increase their influence within the DPJ.

But Kan said he had waited for the fallout from that move to pass before resuming the consolidation talks so he could take the initiative.

Even DPJ policy chief Yukio Edano, known as the most vocal opponent of the proposed merger, said earlier Wednesday he would support consolidating with the Liberal Party if it is disbanded and each of its members supports the current DPJ policy platform. "It would require a tough political decision for them. But I hope they will go in that direction," Edano said.



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