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Thursday, May 27, 2010

SDP walks a tightrope as it flirts with leaving coalition

Staff writer

When Mizuho Fukushima was re-elected president of the Social Democratic Party in December, she promised to pull the SDP out of the ruling coalition if the Futenma air base was relocated within Okinawa, as called for in a 2006 agreement with the United States.

Now that it looks increasingly likely that the administration intends to move forward with a plan to relocate Futenma to the Henoko coast in Nago, Okinawa, the SDP is being rocked by internal rifts with opinions split over whether it should part ways with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

"The SDP is walking a tightrope, where on one side it needs to keep its promise of alleviating the burden on Okinawa, while on the other side it can't afford ditching the coalition," said Hidekazu Kawai, an honorary professor at Gakushuin University.

During a visit to Okinawa on Tuesday, Fukushima met with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine to reaffirm their joint efforts to prevent the relocation of Futenma to Nago.

"An agreement that isn't based on public opinion will be ineffective — we would like to cooperate with the people of Okinawa and try our best to stop the government from making the wrong decision," Fukushima said during a news conference in Okinawa.

But asked whether that means the SDP will pull out of the coalition, Fukushima was evasive, saying the point isn't whether her party will or won't remain in the coalition, but that it is the Okinawan people's "desire that the SDP cooperate in preventing the construction of a new base in Henoko."

Kawai pointed out that Fukushima, an experienced attorney, was being careful with her wording.

"I think what she's really saying is that if the Cabinet can make a bold gesture and show it intends to take the will of Okinawans seriously, there would be no need to abandon the coalition," he said. "This is turning into a parliamentary game — I believe the coalition government will try to resolve the issue by 'agreeing to disagree' " and resolving the conflict by tolerating, but not accepting, opposing positions, Kawai said.

With the Upper House election coming up and recent polls bearing nothing but bad news for the DPJ, maintaining the partnership with the SDP — and being able to rely on its vote-drawing power — remains essential.

The DPJ currently has 116 Upper House seats — five short of a majority. But by combining the SDP's five seats and the six seats for the other coalition member, Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party), the DPJ is able to maintain tenuous control of the chamber.

If the SDP were to bolt, the coalition could still maintain its Upper House majority, but the party's support may be crucial for the DPJ in the upcoming Upper House election and afterward. That is because the outlook for the DPJ in the election looks increasingly gloomy.

During last summer's Lower House election, the SDP got 3 million votes in the proportional representation segment. And with the SDP expected to field candidates in only seven electoral districts in the Upper House race, the DPJ can count on support from Social Democratic voters in the remaining electoral districts — if the coalition is maintained.

However, while the SDP frets over whether to remain in the coalition, it also faces internal disarray over the Futenma question. Opinion within the party on how to proceed varies widely.

At one end of the spectrum is Lower House member Kantoku Teruya, an Okinawa native and hardline base opponent who went so far as to declare he will resign from the party if it doesn't split from the coalition.

Teruya told reporters Monday that in light of the SDP's principles and policies, leaving the coalition is the only option if relocating Futenma within the prefecture is forced through without a coalition agreement or local consensus.

"If we continue to hang on to power, we will lose the public's trust and die a natural death," he said.

On the other end is Lower House lawmaker Tomoko Abe, chairwoman of the SDP policy council. She has maintained that staying in the coalition would give the party more say over the relocation issue.

However, Abe has also indicated recently that if leaving the bloc would prevent the relocation of Futenma within the prefecture, she would comply with that decision.

The SDP plans to reach a conclusion on whether to stick with the coalition after holding a meeting June 3 with party representatives from around the nation.

But Kawai of Gakushuin University said that with the Upper House election coming up in two months, it is highly unlikely the SDP will desert the ruling bloc.

"I don't think the SDP would be so suicidal as to leave the coalition, and I don't think the government would pressure them into that kind of situation," he said.

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The Japan Times

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