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Friday, Aug. 1, 2003


DPJ-Liberal merger their first of many hurdles

Staff writer

The announcement last week that the Democratic Party of Japan will absorb the Liberal Party by the end of September sent shock waves to the nation's political center in Nagata-cho and made front-page headlines.

News photo
Naoto Kan (right), president of the Democratic Party of Japan, shares a laugh with Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa at a symposium in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The two parties began discussing a merger in December, but the talks broke down in May. So why so much public attention now?

A merger at best will create a party with a pre-election Diet strength of 202 members, compared with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's 355, assuming no deserters.

Some observers welcome the merger, noting the new party, which will be called the DPJ, will have a much better chance of becoming an alternative force to the LDP.

With the two opposition forces joining hands, the new party will be able to jointly field candidates for the next election, which is widely expected to be held in November, providing greater chances to expand its Diet power.

"In the ruling camp, the LDP and New Komeito already cooperate" in fielding candidates, DPJ President Naoto Kan said. "Opposition parties will not be able to win unless we combine our forces."

In the Lower House election in 2000, the opposition parties won only about 90 seats out of the 300 single-seat constituencies, mainly because their candidates vied for the same seats, effectively splitting the vote.

In the proportional representation segment, however, four opposition parties won more votes in total than the ruling bloc did in about 80 percent of the 300 single-seat constituencies, according to Kan.

If the votes for the opposition parties were combined, their candidates would probably have triumphed over those backed by the ruling coalition, Kan said.

Hidekazu Kawai, professor of political science at Gakushuin University, agrees. He said driving the LDP-led coalition out of power should be the priority of the opposition parties, instead of trying to iron out their minor policy differences.

Liberal Party President Ichiro Ozawa has apparently agreed to set his differences aside, and has promised to uphold the DPJ's policy code after the merger.

While some critics feel the two parties rushed the merger without agreeing on policies, Kawai said gaps are inevitable in the process of combining forces, noting even LDP members disagree among themselves over policies.

"The LDP has long depended on bureaucrats to draw up policy proposals," he said, noting Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other party members widely disagree on various issues. "It's unfair to criticize only the opposition side."

Policy differences aside, there is still the election factor. The number of seats the merged parties collectively hold before the poll will probably be different afterward.

Aiji Tanaka, a political science professor at Waseda University and an expert election analyst, said simply combining two forces will not necessarily result in more seats in the upcoming election, because both parties rely heavily on floating votes from uncommitted voters, who are estimated to number 35 million out of the nation's 100 million eligible voters.

Advocates of progressive liberal policies have voted for DPJ candidates, while the conservative-minded tended to support Liberal Party members, Tanaka said.

If the new party fails to come up with a platform with strong appeal that voters can identify with, it will suffer at election time, Tanaka said.

Then there's the leadership factor, which will have a major impact on the nature of the new party. Both Kan and Ozawa are well-known figures, and both have strong characters.

Kan, a former health and welfare minister, became a public hero in 1996 for his efforts to reveal how deeply the bureaucracy was involved in the HIV-tainted blood products debacle.

Ozawa, on the other hand, is considered a political schemer and a heavy-handed boss who has had a higher public profile. Many observers are concerned that he could eventually dominate the DPJ.

The merger is like letting a fox inside the hen house, LDP lawmaker Seiji Ota reportedly said.

The Iwate-born Ozawa, once a close aide to the late Shin Kanemaru, the LDP's scandal-tainted behind-the-scenes kingmaker, in 1993 triggered the party's first loss of its Diet majority, and hence power, in 38 years.

At the time, a group of LDP lawmakers led by Ozawa voted for a no-confidence motion against then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and bolted from the ruling party.

Ozawa afterward played a key role in forging the non-LDP coalition government that followed in summer 1993 and later wielded power behind the scenes as the head of Shinshinto, then the largest opposition party, formed in 1994.

But discord over Ozawa's authoritarian rule led to the coalition's breakup the same year and doomed Shinshinto in 1997.

"Ozawa is a master of political power struggles," a senior DPJ official said, adding that every time he tried to maneuver his party with his dictatorial style, many of his colleagues left.

In 1998, Ozawa created the Liberal Party, which early the following year joined in a coalition government with the LDP. However, about half of his party members deserted him to form the New Conservative Party in 2000 after Ozawa decided to break the LDP-Liberal Party union.

"Every time he stirs up his party, it becomes smaller and smaller," the DPJ member said, adding that Ozawa was finally forced to seek an alliance with the DPJ to maintain his political influence.

Kan is well aware of Ozawa's character and appears to have been careful not to give the impression that he bowed to his pressure.

Kan put the brakes on the merger talks in May at a time when Ozawa was approaching conservative promerger DPJ members, led by Yukio Hatoyama, the party's former president. The conservative elements were threatening to leave the DPJ and pressuring the party's leaders to agree to the merger.

The stalemate ended in early July, when Ozawa offered Kan vast concessions, effectively promising that the DPJ, its platform and leaders would remain intact.

"The Liberal Party abandoned its policies and will disband, and the current executive lineup of the DPJ will remain the same," another senior DPJ member said. "There's now no reason to refuse this merger."

Kan got the merger ball rolling again, convinced that the public spotlight this time would fall on him, not Ozawa or Hatoyama, according to DPJ members.

"If we had merged with the Liberal Party in May, the media would have reported that we were forced to do it," a DPJ executive said when asked what prompted Kan to ultimately agree to the plan.

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The Japan Times

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