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Saturday, July 21, 2012

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Constant splintering keeps politics in a rut

Staff writer

When Ichiro Ozawa launched his People's Life First with nearly 50 lawmakers, it became the seventh political party currently holding at least 10 seats in the Diet, and the exodus from the Democratic Party of Japan appears far from over as more tax-hike dissenters splinter off.

Such moves appear to be putting an end to the fledgling two-party system involving the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party and bringing back the days of multiple groups cobbling together fragile coalitions.

Ozawa's move "eliminated the beginning of a two-party system in Japan, even though the DPJ administration was about to establish it," Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu said last week. "The new system was Mr. Ozawa's main political goal, but he tore everything down with his own hands."

Unlike the United States or Britain, where basically two major parties compete for power and control the political game, Japan has seen several minor parties holding Diet seats since the 1990s and at times forming coalitions to create a Cabinet.

The political system since 1955 was dominated by the LDP, which apart from one brief period ruled without interruption for more than five decades. The main opposition role was once held by the Japan Socialist Party, which later became the Social Democratic Party of Japan and is now the minor force Social Democratic Party.

It was Ozawa who shook things up in 1993 by leaving the LDP, where he was once secretary general, in hopes of igniting a political realignment. Clusters of LDP members followed Ozawa's lead and formed their own group, which slowly weakened the LDP's grip and resulted in the creation that year of a coalition administration headed by Morihiro Hosokawa of the Japan New Party.

Breakups and mergers continued even after the Hosokawa Cabinet failed in less than nine months, including Ozawa's decision in 1994 to form Shinshinto by joining hands with other politicians, including LDP members who had defected earlier.

But by 1998 Shinshinto had dissolved into six groups, one of which turned into the Liberal Party led by none other than Ozawa.

The DPJ's victory over the LDP in 2009 was the outcome of small groups, including the Liberal Party after it was absorbed into the DPJ, gathering together to upset the LDP-led coalition.

But all the forming, merging and disbanding of small parties over the years was rarely based on ideology. Instead it was more like a game of musical chairs.

One example is New Party Sakigake, which was formed in June 1993. Despite the core of the party consisting of former LDP members, the group teamed up with the anti-LDP Hosokawa Cabinet and secured key posts in the short-lived administration. When Hosokawa resigned, the party flipped to the unthinkable LDP-JSP coalition and again had members appointed to the Cabinet.

Sakigake later disbanded, with some members, including future Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, creating the foundation of the DPJ.

Existing political parties "don't have a political ideal," Toru Hashimoto said in November after he defeated candidates backed by the LDP and DPJ to be elected mayor of Osaka. "Voters can see through that," he added.

Pundits say Japan won't see a legitimate two-party system until lawmakers compete on a clear opposing axis like in the U.S., where Democrats believe in a larger federal government and tend to be more liberal while Republicans favor less government interference and are more conservative.

Since the DPJ's lawmakers have diverse backgrounds, they often disagree on key policies — such as the sales tax hike.

It is difficult for the public to identify any differences between the LDP and DPJ as there is little to distinguish them on a variety of issues. This is understandable since key players in the DPJ, including Hatoyama, Tsutomu Hata, Katsuya Okada, Kozo Watanabe and even Ozawa all hail from the LDP.

The fact that political beliefs are not what united the DPJ became evident when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's tax hike gained support from the LDP but was opposed by Ozawa and his allies.

Politics will likely continue to be a game where coalitions are formed to secure a better hold on the Diet or to topple the administration in power.

With the latest polls showing none of the existing parties can boast a support rate of more than 13 percent, lawmakers may opt to flee worn-out groups and launch new parties to appear fresh.

Observers say this is only possible because of the extremely high rate of voters who don't support a specific party.

According to a Jiji Press poll released last week, 6.7 percent of voters back the DPJ, while 12.5 percent came out for the LDP.

In contrast, a whopping 71.4 percent said they don't support any political party.

Some parties, such as New Komeito, which has a strong base in the form of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai and its membership of 8 million households, can still influence a candidate's election chances. But the large number of unaffiliated voters has left many political parties too weak to really help their candidates. With voters gravitating more toward prominent figures, such as Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, Osaka's Hashimoto and former Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, rather than parties, these individuals can expect landslide wins in their home districts.

Nobuaki Koga, president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the DPJ's biggest support group, warned the ruling party about this trend.

"Unfortunately the public doesn't relate to the existing parties," Koga told DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi in April.

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