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Monday, Jan. 25, 2010

LDP tries to build steam before poll

Opposition party hit by reform woes ahead of Upper House election


Staff writer

The opposition-leading Liberal Democratic Party held its annual convention Sunday, promising party reform and victory in the July Upper House election while assailing the ruling Democratic Party of Japan over recent money scandals dogging Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa.

News photo
Rallying the troops: Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers including party leader Sadakazu Tanigaki (center) hold a "banzai" cheer at the party's annual convention in Tokyo on Sunday. KYODO PHOTO

But despite all the chest-thumping, reform in the LDP appears to be at a standstill as the once-ruling party scrambles to offer the public a fresh image.

"We need to think over the meaning of that general election," said LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki in his New Year address, referring to the devastating election in August that ousted it from power.

Tanigaki promised that the party would regain its sense of urgency and responsibility, and deliver "fresh and precise" policies in order to win the public's mandate.

"I believe we should consider the regime change as an opportunity given to us by the people to rebuild our party and return to power," he said.

Reflecting the party's tight finances after its fall from power, the event was held at a hall in the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka, a smaller venue than usual for previous conventions.

Notably absent from the meeting was Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nihon Keidanren), who skipped the convention for the first time since he was elected to the post in 2006.

His absence aroused speculation that the federation might be trying to distance itself from the LDP.

Instead, Katsuya Nomura, former coach of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball team, attended as a special guest and spoke about his experience "reforming" a weak pro baseball team into a strong one.

"When you lose, you lose, but what's important is to understand why you lost," Nomura said, advising the LDP that it was now in the "loser's bracket" and that it was important for it to brace itself and analyze its mistakes.

Critics, however, agree the LDP still has a long ways to go before it can bring about a Rakuten Eagles-like turnabout in its fortunes, even if the DPJ is helping it along with money scandals and policy blunders.

A Kyodo News poll taken Jan. 17 and 18 saw support for the DPJ drop 6.6 percent to 32.1 percent from a week before, while the LDP gained 5.4 percent to reach 22.7 percent.

But such figures may not provide much comfort.

"The one thing protecting the DPJ in current circumstances is that the LDP has made absolutely zero progress in reforming itself," said political commentator Tobias Harris.

"As far as I can tell, the LDP has not made a serious inquiry into why it was defeated, has made no critical assessment of its policy program or how it selects candidates or how it selects leaders or how it formulates policies or how it raises money . . . the list goes on," he said.

In its party platform, titled "A Japan overflowing with dignity and energy," the LDP emphasized in fuzzy language the importance of being a conservative party that "constantly strives for improvement," and promised to be reborn as a "fighting opposition party."

But to achieve such promises, the party may need to rejuvenate its ranks.

Harris, who runs the political blog Observing Japan, said the LDP was seriously hurting from the fact that so many of its survivors were hereditary politicians or senior politicians who were able to get elected because of their family names and connections.

"The party's ranks are full of politicians who depend on the party for very little, so there is little impetus for substantial and costly reform," Harris said.

In a sign of mounting irritation within the opposition party, LDP veteran Taro Kono, 47, recently lashed out against a decision by Mikio Aoki, the 75-year-old former chief of the LDP's Upper House caucus, to file his candidacy for the upcoming Upper House election in July.

Kono, who lost against Tanigaki in his bid for party president, wrote on his blog that he was "dead set against the party endorsing a politician representing the old LDP" when what the party needed most was reform.

On Tuesday, 32 lawmakers from the LDP's younger ranks presented party executives with a signed resolution aimed at bringing about internal reform, including a demand to adopt a 70-year age limit in the proportional representation segment of the Upper House elections.

But reform can only come slowly, Harris observed.

"Party reform will be fought on a district-by-district basis as local chapters fight over who should be the LDP's candidate in the district," Harris said.

"If the LDP is able to copy the DPJ and bring new people (and new ideas) into the party, it may be able to rejuvenate itself. But if it continues to rely on old hereditary politicians or prefectural assembly members who made their living on securing pork in Tokyo, then the LDP will remain locked in old ways," he said.



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