Masuzoe issues reform ultimatum to ailing LDP

by Jun Hongo

Veteran lawmaker Yoichi Masuzoe on Monday issued what could be taken as an ultimatum to his ailing Liberal Democratic Party, saying that a failure to restructure will not only push the public to abandon it but may force its ranks to split as well.

In a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, Masuzoe said he was “exploring both options” — reconstructing the LDP or creating a separate group.

Masuzoe said he has been in touch with others who share similar views, including Your Party chief Yoshimi Watanabe.

Masuzoe, a former health minister who is considered a strong candidate to take over leadership of the ailing party, said the public will “never support” the LDP if it remains in its current form.

While the ruling Democratic Party of Japan has seen its public approval ratings slump amid a spate of political funds scandals, the LDP has failed to take advantage of the slide.

The party that once boasted ironclad solidarity is also showing signs of fracture, with some members openly criticizing LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki’s stratagem, which recently included boycotting sessions of the Lower House Budget Committee.

The DPJ and LDP will clash in July’s Upper House election, which is expected to determine the future of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s administration.

Masuzoe, who is often ranked in public polls as a likely candidate for prime minister, said it is “fatal” that the DPJ has twice the support of the LDP at this point.

The trend could spark some members to force Tanigaki out of his seat, he warned, while also touching on the possibility of creating a new party himself.

“We share the same ideas,” Masuzoe said of Watanabe, adding he is in close touch with DPJ Cabinet members, including Seiji Maehara and Yukio Edano, who are known as vocal critics of beleaguered DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa.

During his speech, Masuzoe criticized the DPJ for the scandals, also touching on its failure to keep some of its campaign pledges. The party is under the “dictatorship” of Ozawa, he said.

The LDP should meanwhile try new approaches, including ending factional politics, and use new means — including the real-time information network Twitter — to more closely connect with the public, Masuzoe said.

“April will be a season of political storm,” Masuzoe predicted, saying that although the fiscal budget may clear the Diet as planned Tuesday, pressing issues such as the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, may have a serious impact on politics in the runup to the Upper House showdown.