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Hatoyama gaffe exposes opposition rifts

by Alex Martin

When Democratic Party of Japan President Yukio Hatoyama let slip on FM radio on June 15 that a coalition with the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) was paramount — but only until the DPJ wins next year’s Upper House election and acquires a single-party majority — both smaller forces were quick to strike.

“Who on Earth gets married when they know they’ll be divorced in a year,” ex-Kokumin Shinto deputy chief Shizuka Kamei asked DPJ executives at a meeting the next day.

SDP President Mizuho Fukushima was also critical, saying Hatoyama had shown the DPJ’s true colors.

“This is why the DPJ shouldn’t win the Lower House election with a single-party majority,” she said at a news conference June 17.

“The SDP needs the people’s support in order for us to prevent the overseas dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces and to block any unnecessary amendments to the Constitution,” she said, referring to key policies the SDP supports but the DPJ doesn’t.

Although Hatoyama quickly backtracked and apologized, the incident was enough to reveal the rifts separating the three key opposition parties as they prepare to challenge the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc in the next Lower House election.

“At this point, the DPJ should not be assuming that the best-case scenario will come to pass. It should be acting on the assumption that it will need to cooperate with the SDP and PNP indefinitely,” said Tobias Harris, who runs the political blog Observing Japan.

“Meanwhile, perhaps this episode will provide the DPJ with a reminder that in coalition governments, the smaller parties have leverage disproportionate to their size,” said Harris, 26, who used to be an aide to a DPJ Upper House politician he did not want to identify.

Kokumin Shinto has four Upper House members and the SDP has seven. The 11 are critical to maintaining opposition control of the chamber.

The SDP has long held national security at arm’s length and has insisted on Japan’s complete disarmament in accordance with Article 9 of the Constitution and opposed any overseas SDF dispatch.

The DPJ differs. It says it would get behind an overseas deployment if the decision was based on a United Nations resolution.

“National security will probably be the largest obstacle separating the SDP and the DPJ,” said a government official who closely follows the DPJ. “That’s the issue they will be quarreling about the most.”

For Kokumin Shinto, a group ousted from the LDP in 2005 by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during his quest to privatize the postal system, it would be a chance to radically overhaul the privatization scheme, which is another key policy plank the smaller parties generally share with the DPJ.

However, while Kokumin Shinto calls for the three main postal services — savings, insurance and mail — to be managed by a single body, there are strong voices within the DPJ demanding that financial services be managed by the private sector, an issue that may create even bigger rifts.

Media reports indicate the DPJ has recently begun moving to strengthen ties with other opposition figures besides the SDP and Kokumin Shinto to recruit anti-LDP forces before the general election.

On June 24, Hatoyama and deputy Naoto Kan arranged meetings with Yoshimi Watanabe, the former minister of administrative reform who left the LDP after denouncing Prime Minister Taro Aso’s policy for reforming the civil servant system, and Kenji Eda, an independent Lower House member who formed a policy group with Watanabe to exchange ideas on a possible postelection coalition.

Hatoyama also reportedly contacted convicted bribe-taker Muneo Suzuki, president of Hokkaido-based New Party Daichi.

However, given the fresh scandal involving Hatoyama’s political fund management body, which used the names of deceased people to make false statements in its funding reports, it is unclear how the DPJ’s coalition strategy will unfold.