SDP decides to bolt from ruling coalition

Futenma issue comes to a head, but DPJ election tieup still possible

by Jun Hongo

The Social Democratic Party said Sunday it will leave the tripartite ruling coalition after its leader, Mizuho Fukushima, was kicked out of the Cabinet last week for opposing its decision to keep a contentious U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture.

After meeting with the SDP’s regional chapter chiefs the same day, Fukushima, who was fired as consumer affairs minister Friday, said the decision was difficult to make but resolute.

“The SDP will remain true to its beliefs and will not take back the vows that we made,” she said, referring to the small party’s promise to remove U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Okinawa.

Leaving with Fukushima will be SDP veteran Kiyomi Tsujimoto, who will resign as senior vice minister for land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, erasing the SDP’s presence in Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Cabinet.

Well over a majority of the SDP’s prefectural chapters rejected the idea of maintaining the alliance with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, Fukushima said.

Nevertheless, the SDP chief said her party must still consult with the DPJ on executing other agreements the tripartite coalition reached last September to determine if cooperation in the Upper House election in July is still possible.

“We must go through certain steps, even when divorcing one’s partner,” SDP deputy chief Seiji Mataichi said.

DPJ Deputy Secretary General Goshi Hosono meanwhile said Hatoyama was right to sack Fukushima and bow to Washington’s demands on relocating Futenma.

“This was a difficult decision for Prime Minister Hatoyama,” Hosono said on a TV program Sunday. Failure to reach an agreement with the United States could have delayed another plan to reduce bilateral friction: the relocation of 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014.

“The decision needed to be made,” Hosono said, adding that getting the full consent of the Cabinet was imperative. Fukushima refused to sign the resolution.

Critics say that both parties will feel the impact of the breakup during the Upper House election and beyond.

Pulling out is a double-edged sword for the SDP, a minor party with only a dozen seats in the Diet. Staying with the troubled DPJ would have kept the Socialists in the spotlight, while returning to the opposition may weaken its image ahead of a crucial election.

Although SDP Secretary General Yasumasa Shigeno said cooperating with the ruling coalition is still possible, for example, in passing the bill on protecting dispatch workers, some say that a weak-kneed response would have done wider damage.

“In the end, the departure from the coalition could become a plus for the SDP for now,” political analyst Minoru Morita said, explaining that Fukushima’s decision to stick to her guns could reap wider support for the party.

For the DPJ, parting ways may destabilize it further at a time when its support rate appears to be in a free-fall.

The SDP’s vote-drawing power is crucial to the DPJ’s ability to control the Upper House, where it has 116 of the 242 seats.

Although the addition of six seats from Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) gives Hatoyama a slight cushion in the chamber, a loss in July will change the game.

The DPJ already has a majority in the more powerful House of Representatives.

If the coalition had been kept intact, the DPJ could have counted on support from the SDP, which drew 3 million votes in the proportional representation segment of last summer’s general election.

The SDP is expected to field candidates in seven electoral districts in July, which could give the DPJ a chance to win some of its votes if an amicable relationship is maintained.

That is why the SDP’s departure could hurt the DPJ more than the SDP, political analyst Eiken Itagaki said.

“The departure of SDP from the coalition definitely changes the game plan for the DPJ. (DPJ Secretary General Ichiro) Ozawa must rewrite his scheme for the election,” said Itagaki, who has written books on DPJ policy.

But both Morita and Itagaki agreed that the eight-month alliance was doomed from the start.

“These two parties have a completely different mind-set when it comes to security issues,” Morita said.

They should have avoided the coalition partnership and remained election allies instead, he said.

Itagaki agreed. He said the idea of removing Futenma from Okinawa was doubtful to begin with and that the breakup was anticipated.

“At least Fukushima made the best of it, adding to her resume the title of state minister,” Itagaki said.

With the DPJ’s election prospects looking increasingly gloomy, Hatoyama now faces the possibility of being unable to proceed with its legislative agenda, even if it opens its arms to other new parties.

Morita said joining forces with other parties, including Your Party or New Komeito, is unlikely as long as Hatoyama remains in power. Both parties have already said they won’t enter a coalition with the DPJ.

“There is a slight chance such parties may reconsider if a fresh face takes over the DPJ in the party’s presidential election in September,” Morita said. “But that is under the assumption that Hatoyama will somehow last as prime minister until then.”