New Komeito head to bow out

by Masami Ito

Four days after a devastating defeat in the Lower House general election, New Komeito leader Akihiro Ota announced Thursday he is stepping down to take responsibility for his party’s poor showing.

“The election result was extremely harsh for our party,” Ota told a news conference. “All the responsibility lies with me as the party’s leader, and I have come to the decision to resign.”

Along with Ota, New Komeito Secretary General Kazuo Kitagawa also declared his intention to step down. Both key lawmakers lost their Diet seats in Sunday’s election.

“It is important for a party’s leader to argue the party’s position in the Diet, especially as an opposition party,” Ota said. “Therefore, I believe that a lawmaker should take the helm of the party.”

Ota said the party’s executives would recommend candidates for the new leader Monday, and a decision is expected to be approved by Tuesday at a meeting of local chapter representatives. Although several names have surfaced, including policy chief Natsuo Yamaguchi, no decision has been made.

New Komeito, which is backed by Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, suffered badly in the election. Its coalition partner, Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party, was also trounced.

New Komeito went into the Lower House poll with 31 seats and came out with just 21. All eight of its candidates running in single-seat districts, including Ota and Kitagawa, lost. The party now has a combined 42 seats in both houses of the Diet.

Kitagawa stressed that his defeat was not due to the weakness of Soka Gakkai and the party’s other supporters, but was the party’s fault for not being able to stand up to strong public criticism.

“The party, Soka Gakkai and my supporters all did their best,” Kitagawa said. “The reason we lost was not because of (a lack of) strength of the organization or (a lack of) motivation of the individual supporters. The loss was the result of the political flow in the central government.”

Komeito first joined forces with the LDP in 1999 under then-leader Takenori Kanzaki. The partnership continued under succeeding LDP prime ministers upto to Aso. Now the two formerly governing parties must content themselves with opposition status as they try to find new leaders.

New Komeito is expected to go its own way for a while under a Diet dominated by the DPJ.