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Sunday, Oct. 1, 2006
New Komeito selects Ota as president
Rifts possible with partner LDP now that hardliner Abe is in charge
By MASAMI ITO
New Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party's junior coalition partner, elected Akihiro Ota as its president Saturday for the party's first leadership change in eight years.
Ota is expected to have a tough time preventing policy rifts between his party, backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest lay Buddhist organization and an advocate of peace, and the LDP, now led by known hardliner Shinzo Abe.
At its party convention in Tokyo, New Komeito also chose Upper House lawmaker Toshiko Hamayotsu as acting chief representative and Kazuo Kitagawa as secretary general. Former Secretary General Tetsuzo Fuyushiba was appointed last week as the land, infrastructure and transport minister in Abe's Cabinet.
The term of the new party leadership is two years.
Under then leader Takenori Kanzaki, New Komeito first joined hands with the LDP in 1999 when Keizo Obuchi was was prime minister. Kanzaki continued the partnership with Prime Ministers Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi.
Now the coalition has entered a new era with the leadership changes at both parties. Ota confirmed he will follow Kanzaki's lead and continue the coalition.
"The LDP and New Komeito have developed a strong trusting relationship," Ota, 60, said at the convention. "Based on this trusting relationship, (we will) debate seriously to reach better agreements.
"I will rejuvenate New Komeito and tackle the problems Japan is facing with all my physical and spiritual strength," Ota said. "I want to ask New Komeito lawmakers to serve their master -- the public -- and devote themselves to work for the public."
In a show of coalition unity, Abe made an appearance at the convention, stressing the alliance's importance.
"I believe that strengthening the foundation of the ruling coalition is the best for Japan," Abe said. "I will stabilize the political situation and ensure that (we) advance with our policies."
However, as a party that promotes peace, New Komeito's new leadership is likely to face conflicts with Abe's LDP.
Some party members reportedly see Ota as a "fundamentalist" because of his cautious stance on revising the Constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education -- both of which the LDP will pursue.
In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Ota stated clearly that the prime minister should refrain from visiting Yasukuni Shrine. Although Abe has not yet declared whether he will make the pilgrimage, he supported Koizumi's annual visits. He also went to the shrine in April when he was chief Cabinet secretary.
At a news conference after the convention, Ota downplayed possible policy differences with Abe.
"I did not get the impression that Mr. Abe was hawkish when we discussed our political views," he said, adding that New Komeito's views match that of Abe's regarding education and Asian diplomacy.
Ota avoided answering whether he thought Abe should clarify his position on visiting Yasukuni.
"What is most important is realizing a summit meeting with China," Ota said.
Another policy difference likely to emerge is over Abe's intention to enable the execution of collective defense. New Komeito has stressed that Japan cannot exercise collective defense, and Ota reiterated this stance Saturday. Abe has expressed his intention to permit collective defense.