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Saturday, July 28, 2012

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Tending the flock: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (center) and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's secretary general, Azuka Koshiishi (right), attend a meeting of party members in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on July 12. KYODO

DPJ scrambles to stop Ozawa exit sparking mass defections

Staff writers

It was like a domino effect — lawmakers have been leaving in ones and in groups from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

They all had their reasons, many protesting Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's unpopular tax hike bill, but others also voicing opposition to the reactivation of the idled nuclear reactors and the government's intention to join the Trans-Pacftic Partnership free-trade agreement.

As the number of Lower and Upper House lawmakers who have quit the ruling party has risen to 55 since Ichiro Ozawa and his allies split this month, the priority for Noda's administration is to nip any more exits in the bud and achieve a sense of internal unity.

According to some reports, more than 20 potential defectors remain in the DPJ's divided ranks, with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and ex-farm minister Masahiko Yamada considered the most prominent. All of these members either opposed or abstained Noda's bill to double the 5 percent consumption tax when it was put to a June vote in the Lower House.

Hatoyama and Yamada have decided to stay within the DPJ fold for the time being but have suggested they may quit in the near future depending on how Noda and the party's executives handle the proposed reforms and other issues going forward. The two are also awaiting the outcome of the party's September presidential poll, and Noda's re-election hopes.

To stem mounting opposition among the DPJ's rank and file against his leadership and to deter further resignations, Noda has hinted the tax hike bill could be revised and DPJ executives have been meeting with disgruntled members to promote unity.

"We are in a difficult position, but I would like to turn this into an opportunity for the party to come together with the aim of achieving results for the public," Noda told a recent meeting of DPJ members.

Political analysts, however, believe it is unlikely there will be additional defections, at least among Lower House members, because any of those who leave would have to face the next general poll without the backing of a major party amid an extremely hostile electoral environment.

Many of the 48 members who fled together with former DPJ kingpin Ozawa and formed their own party, Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People's Life First), won their first Lower House term in the 2009 general election that brought the DPJ to power.

Given the ruling party's plummeting support ratings due in part to the tax hike, their defections are widely seen as an attempt by them to boost their re-election prospects by appealing to voters opposed to the tax hike. The next general election must be held no later than August 2013.

Many pundits agree the prospects of Ozawa's allies holding onto their seats appear bleak.

Meanwhile, freshmen lawmakers who opposed the tax hike but remain in the DPJ are feeling torn — for now.

Eriko Fukuda, a Lower House rookie, is among many colleagues who admit to feeling deeply conflicted over the consumption tax bill, which she ultimately voted against. Her party membership was suspended for two months as punishment. Hatoyama's was frozen for three months.

But unlike Ozawa loyalists who view the tax hike as a bitter betrayal of the no-tax-hike pledge the DPJ campaigned on in the 2009 election, Fukuda said she felt the initial reforms Noda proposed were reasonable and that she realizes the need to double the levy to 10 percent by 2015, given Japan's perilous fiscal situation.

The original plans included the creation of a new revenue entity by 2018, as well as revising the pension premium system. It also included a proposal to raise the maximum income tax rate and inheritance taxes for the wealthy to balance the burden of a higher consumption tax and mitigate the pain for low-income households.

But many of these aspects were scrapped within a single week last month during negotiations with the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito — the two largest opposition groups — due to the DPJ's dependence on their cooperation to pass related bills in the divided Diet.

The legislation that arose from the trilateral talks "is too different from the original plan," said Fukuda. "The bills have to be able to improve the disparity between rich and poor.

"I wasn't strongly opposed to the tax hike to begin with . . . but in the end, I simply thought it was absurd that (the DPJ) called a Lower House vote on the legislation without first deciding" on specific details about how the additional revenue would be used to improve the social security system, she said.

Fukuda said she will try to persuade Noda to revise the present tax-related bills before they clear the opposition-controlled Upper House — but is undecided about her future if the prime minister refuses.

"As long as I am in the DPJ, I want to make changes," Fukuda said. "It would be pointless to spend all this time and effort only to have (the bills) remain in their current form, (but) I haven't decided what to do if the bills clear the Diet as they are."

Still, some rookie lawmakers in the end backed Noda's reforms.

"Anyone can say they are against a tax hike, or the restarting of nuclear reactors, or joining the TPP, but I think it's the job of politicians to find a solution while trying to narrow the gap between the reality and the ideal," said Kumiko Hayakawa, who represents Katsushika Ward, Tokyo.

But lofty ideals aside, the present reality remains harsh.

After the tax hike bill cleared the Lower House, one of Hayakawa's constituents pelted her with an egg after learning she had voted in favor of the bill.

"I am feeling considerable anxiety because I think I will definitely (lose my seat) in the next election," she said, noting she is not currently planning to abandon the DPJ. "It is easy to run away (but) I think this is my fate as a lawmaker."

Noda is praying that more DPJ members share her intent to remain in the party, especially as the Lower House majority of his DPJ-Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) ruling bloc is in jeopardy. If just 15 or more lawmakers defect, the opposition could potentially muster sufficient votes to pass a no-confidence motion against Noda or his Cabinet, and even force him to call an election.

But DPJ lawmaker Yosuke Kondo, a close Noda ally, expressed confidence that most DPJ members who at present are critical of Noda — and even some of the defectors — ultimately would not back a no-confidence vote in the near future to avoid the risk of losing their seats in the next general election.

"We are the ones holding all the cards because we aren't afraid of calling an election. The last thing Noda's opponents within the DPJ or members of Ozawa's party want is the dissolution of the Lower House," Kondo said.

"Leaving the party may have seemed like a good idea, but defectors won't be able to achieve anything once they quit," Kondo said, referring to the ruling coalition's continued grip on power.

"Whatever they say after that is just the howls of losers. We become politicians to effect policy. And the only way to do this is by being in the ruling camp."

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