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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Small parties looking for bigger say

If election falls their way, DPJ will come calling with hat in hand


Staff writer

With the approach of the summer Upper House election, several new parties are vying for voters disenchanted with the Democratic Party of Japan, which swept to power last year on the promise of change but became mired in money scandals and accusations of poor leadership.

News photo
Clockwise from top left: Yoichi Masuzoe of Shinto Kaikaku, Takeo Hiranuma of Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan), Yoshimi Watanabe of Your Party, and Hiroshi Yamada of Nippon Soshinto. KYODO PHOTOS

Four small parties, mainly made up of defectors from the Liberal Democratic Party, are gearing up to win the deciding vote in the Upper House, where the DPJ-led ruling bloc clings to a slim majority.

If the DPJ-led coalition fails to win the hearts of swing voters and hold onto its majority in the chamber, the minor parties will gain a greater say in passing government-sponsored bills, experts say.

"It's a question of how successful the new parties will be in mobilizing independent voters to their advantage," said Yasuharu Ishizawa, professor of politics and media at Gakushuin Women's College.

"It will be a messy election — the DPJ may be forced to seek new alliances if they suffer a beating at the polls," he said.

Of the 242 Upper House seats, the DPJ and its coalition partners — the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) — hold a combined majority with 127 seats.

A total of 121 seats will be contested in the election, and the DPJ — which gained 62 seats in the previous Upper House election, in 2007 — will have to win more than 60 seats to obtain a single-party majority.

But with public support for the Cabinet spiraling downward, and with the administration facing severe criticism of its handling of the relocation of Futenma, the U.S. Marine Corps air station in Okinawa, among other issues, the outlook for the summer election is anything but rosy.

Meanwhile, public support for the LDP is also dwindling. According to an April 5 poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the DPJ's public support rate plummeted to 24 percent from 31 percent, while the LDP's fell to 16 from 20 percent.

At the same time, voters who support no particular party rose to 50 percent from 36 percent in the poll, a trend that appears not to have gone unnoticed by those lawmakers jumping on the "new party" bandwagon.

If no party wins a simple majority in the Upper House, independent voices will have a greater say in forming a new coalition government — a role that all four of the new parties are aspiring to.

In fact, all four — Shinto Kaikaku, led by former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, Tachiagare Nippon, led by former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma, Nippon Soshinto, made up of local government leaders, and Your Party, led by Lower House member Yoshimi Watanabe — are declaring an "anti-DPJ, anti-LDP" line, without clarifying exactly what their policy differences are.

"What's important is to stop the DPJ's reckless handling of state affairs, and the first move will be to prevent it from gaining a majority in the Upper House," said Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara during an April 16 press conference.

Ishihara, who backs Hiranuma's Tachiagare Nippon, said the emergence of new political parties reflects a sense of public crisis toward the DPJ-led team and an increasing desire for an alternative.

"And for that to happen, I believe these new parties should join hands and form alliances," the hawkish governor said.

Still, whether those four minor parties can win wide support from voters to change the political landscape remains to be seen.

Your Party, launched last August, was able to gather 3 million votes in the proportional representation segment of the general election held in the same month and claim five Lower House seats.

The party currently ranks third in public opinion polls. But according to the Yomiuri poll of April 5, its support rate is still only 4 percent.

"We need to observe the situation with a certain amount of caution," said Ishizawa of Gakushuin Women's College. "None of these new parties will be able to win enough seats to individually make a significant difference," he said.

"But they definitely will be destabilizing factors" in the political scene, he added.

In particular, Masuzoe's party and Watanabe's Your Party are considered likely to garner public support in the Upper House election.

At an April 20 press conference, Your Party Secretary General Kenji Eda said the party was looking to win 8 million votes and more than 10 Upper House seats, while denying any concern that independent votes may be scattered among the recently launched parties.

In many past polls, Masuzoe, a harsh critic of the LDP leadership, has been the most popular choice for prime minister.

Along with six lawmakers picked up from the LDP and minor opposition Kaikaku Club (Japan Renaissance Party), he has pledged to reform the economy and the social security system and halve the number of Diet members.

"I can easily see where support for Your Party and Masuzoe's party would come from — these are parties geared toward the growing bloc of independent voters who want their politicians clean and the politics reformist," said political commentator Tobias Harris.

Harris, who runs the political blog Observing Japan, said the defection of Masuzoe — "the only LDP politician with any serious national backing" — could potentially break up the party that ruled the nation for nearly five decades.

"However difficult this campaign will be for the DPJ, it could be a mortal blow for the LDP," he said.

Hiroshi Yamada, mayor of Tokyo's Suginami Ward, launched Nippon Soshinto on Sunday with other current and former heads of local governments.

Nippon Soshinto, while lacking any Diet members in its ranks, has announced it intends to field at least 10 candidates and win five to 10 seats.

While advocating devolving power from the central to local governments, the conservative-leaning party is also calling for a drastic reduction in public servants and for hiking the consumption tax to cover social welfare expenses.

Although it remains to be seen how these new faces will perform in the summer election, it seems likely they will search for ways to form alliances to increase their political clout.

Reports have indicated that Hiroyuki Sonoda, secretary general of Tachiagare Nippon, has already expressed interest in cooperating with Masuzoe's Shinto Kaikaku, while Yamada of Nippon Soshinto has said his party will join with other "third pole" parties, such as Watanabe's Your Party, after the election "to hold the casting vote."



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