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Monday, Jan. 1, 2007

LDP may be facing tough road this year

Dwindling public support for Abe, 12-year jinx weigh heavily


Staff writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's three-month-old Cabinet has already seen a lot of drama, scandal and other problems, and by the looks of it, 2007 will probably pose even tougher challenges for the conservative leader.

A major test for Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party will be nationwide local elections in spring and the House of Councilors election in July. Known as "the year of the boar phenomenon," the two major elections are held in the same year every 12 years.

And every time it is the year of the boar, the LDP has fared badly in the Upper House election, said Takayoshi Miyagawa, president of the Center for Political Public Relations Inc.

For example, although the LDP won 68 of 126 Upper House seats up for re-election in 1992, the party won only 46 out of 126 in 1995, the last year of the boar.

"It is almost like a jinx for the LDP," Miyagawa said. "Thus, (the party) has a sense of impending crisis."

Miyagawa noted that local-level assembly members focus all of their energy on their own races. By the time the Upper House election rolls around they're not interested in gearing up for another campaign.

"Also, due to the merging of municipalities (in the past few years), there are fewer local members to begin with who can support candidates running in the Upper House election," Miyagawa said.

The unified local elections, held every four years, will choose governors, prefectural assembly members, mayors and other heads of towns and villages.

Attention will focus on the Tokyo governor's race, in which the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, has declared he will seek a third term.

Ishihara ran as an independent last time, but this election he is likely to be running on the LDP ticket because the party already announced it will back him.

That doesn't mean he is a shoo-in. The hawkish Ishihara is notorious for his racial and sexist slurs and has recently been the target of criticism for spending too much money on official overseas travel. The Japanese Communist Party's ranks in the metropolitan assembly recently reported that he used 243.5 million yen of taxpayer money in the last five years for trips abroad.

The Democratic Party of Japan, on the other hand, has declared it will not support Ishihara jointly with the LDP, but it has yet to name its own.

Possible picks include Naoto Kan, former DPJ head and now deputy president, but political observers say it is unlikely Kan will try to run against the popular Ishihara.

"The unified local elections have deep political meaning because they can determine the outcome of the Upper House election," Miyagawa said.

At the moment, the LDP lacks a majority in the Upper House. It holds 111 out of the total 242 seats. The party has managed to maintain a majority through its coalition partner, New Komeito, which has 24. The DPJ, the largest opposition force, holds 82.

"There is a possibility that the LDP could lose," Miyagawa said. "And if the LDP loses badly, New Komeito will probably start distancing itself from the LDP . . . and it may even join hands with the DPJ. What is important for New Komeito is to stay in power."

For the LDP, New Komeito is an important election partner because it is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest lay Buddhist organization and a vote-generator, Miyagawa said.

Losing the majority would be a big blow for the ruling bloc because bills that clear the Lower House can be voted down in the Upper House, slowing the chances of passage.

The July election could meanwhile be a chance for the DPJ to score gains toward its goal of one day taking power.

"If the (ruling bloc) loses a majority, Abe's Cabinet will be forced to resign," said strategist Hiroshi Miura, who runs Ask Co., a political PR consulting firm in Tokyo. "And (Abe), as party president, would have to take the responsibility."

Despite speculation in the media and by analysts that the LDP may get stung in the election, Miura, once a secretary to former Diet member Motoo Shiina, said it is too soon to tell.

The LDP is supported by various major organizations with vested interests, including the medical and dental associations. And with the support of New Komeito -- and hence Soka Gakkai and its more than 8 million member households -- the LDP has relatively sound footing.

The DPJ is supported by labor unions, but their power has been waning in recent years, Miura said.

The election may depend on whether the LDP or DPJ can make things interesting enough to attract voters, Miura said, noting both may need a "surprise" candidate famous enough to attract attention.

Abe's ploy, with an eye on the July election, of readmitting 11 "postal reform rebels" back into the LDP could meanwhile backfire, critics say.

His predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, ousted them from the party as well as others before the September 2005 Lower House election because they had opposed his postal privatization initiative. Abe brought them back because they have local-level power bases and add to the LDP's ranks, thus upping the government subsidies the party is entitled to get.

Allowing the 11 back in, however, triggered criticism in and out of the party.

"(Their readmission) was a backward step," said Fukashi Horie, president of Shobi University, in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture. "Abe completely surrendered to Upper House LDP lawmakers who threatened to not support his Cabinet" if he didn't let them back in.

Abe's bad luck only worsened with revelations that the government, during Koizumi's administration, had planted people to speak in support of official policies, including education reform -- an Abe priority -- in government-held town hall meetings across the nation.

Most recently, his government saw two key resignations. First, Tax Commission Chairman Masaaki Honma was forced to step down after a magazine reported that he was living with a woman other than his wife at a government-subsidized condominium in Tokyo.

A week later, administrative reform minister Genichiro Sata resigned after admitting accounting irregularities by one of his political support organizations.

These factors further fueled the decline in the Cabinet support rate, Horie pointed out. According to a recent Kyodo News survey, public approval dropped to 48.6 percent in early December, from 65.0 percent in September just after the Cabinet was formed.

"Abe has now found himself in dire straits," Horie said. "The biggest task for Abe in 2007 is to find a way to regain public trust."



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