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DPJ’s second wind worries rivals

New small forces had banked on Hatoyama, LDP fall from grace

by Mai Iida

Kyodo News

April was an unusual month for politics as several new parties debuted in short order.

One is Shinto Kaikaku (New Renaissance Party), launched by Liberal Democratic Party defector Yoichi Masuzoe, who has often been the public’s pick for prime minister in opinion polls. Another is Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan), formed by former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma and former Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano, also both ex-LDP. Former local government heads set up Nippon Soshinto (Spirit of Japan Party).

Two months on, the new parties are busy preparing for the July 11 House of Councilors election, but they do not appear to have gained broad support within such a short period of time as the political scene has changed rapidly.

When the new parties debuted in April, then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government was suffering plunging support ratings amid money scandals and a dispute over the relocation of the U.S. Futenma base in Okinawa. But the Democratic Party of Japan-led government enjoyed a quick rebound in support ratings after Naoto Kan replaced Hatoyama, who abruptly quit in early June.

“The Hatoyama administration’s support ratings were very low. They (the new party founders) must have expected that the number of people who were disillusioned by the DPJ, but also dissatisfied with the Liberal Democratic party, would increase,” said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a professor at Keio University.

“But the DPJ has succeeded in shifting the focus of people’s attention to the launch of the new government, and the atmosphere has changed. For the new parties, things must have turned out to be quite different from what they had expected,” he said.

Former health minister Masuzoe, as well as Yosano, left the LDP to form their parties after harshly criticizing LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki for failing to regain voter support, which has flagged since the party’s crushing defeat in last summer’s House of Representatives election, when the DPJ ousted the LDP after almost 50 years in power.

But support ratings for the parties formed by Masuzoe and Yosano remain low, standing at around 1 percent. The ratings are sharply below the 7.4 percent for Your Party, a small party founded last summer by Yoshimi Watanabe, who also left the LDP but at a time when the party was still ruling the nation, according to a June 8-9 poll.

“There are so many political parties. It’ll be very difficult for citizens to recognize which politicians belong to which party,” Masuzoe told reporters when asked about his party’s low support ratings in spite of his own popularity. “The launch of our party was late and preparations were not enough . . . but we will explain our policies diligently ahead of voting day.”

The low approval ratings dogging the minor new parties, with the exception of Your Party, can be laid to their inability to date to clarify to voters how they differ from each other policywise, Kobayashi said.

Again with the exception of Your Party, the other new groups seem to have a similar stance on the 5 percent consumption tax, which Kan, by proposing discussions on hiking the levy, has made a key issue in the upcoming election. Kan suggested using the LDP’s proposal to raise the sales tax to 10 percent as a “reference.”

Tachiagare Nippon says the sales tax needs to be raised by 3 percentage points from fiscal 2012 and later hiked gradually after confirming the economy has recovered. Nippon Soshinto says the tax needs to be raised to 10 percent and Shinto Kaikaku says a hike to 10 percent or more by around 2020 is necessary. Your Party opposes any hike anytime soon.

Hiroshi Yamada, who launched Nippon Soshinto after serving as mayor of Suginami Ward, Tokyo, for 11 years, recently spoke on the streets against what he termed unfair media coverage and a political system that benefits serving Diet members.

Yamada’s party currently does not have any Diet members, while Yosano’s and Masuzoe’s parties have six lawmakers each. Yamada has said the existing parties are responsible for putting the country heavily in debt, and since they cannot solve the problem, he formed his party in a bid to draw in people who have experience in running municipalities.

Unless a party has five or more sitting Diet members, however, it doesn’t qualify for state subsidies.

Criticizing this rule, Yamada said on June 23 a speech in front of Ogikubo Station in Suginami Ward, “Japan is so harsh to newcomers.”

If the rules only benefit sitting lawmakers, “Japan cannot change,” he said. “I want to apply all my experience as Suginami Ward mayor to reform Japan.”

Hiranuma, the head of Tachiagare Nippon, together with coleader and fiscal reform advocate Yosano, said in a stump speech in Tokyo the following day, “We stood up to prevent the DPJ from securing a majority in the election.” Masuzoe meanwhile vowed to restore people’s trust in politics.

Election boards nationwide saw a combined 438 candidate filings for the triennial election, in which half of the upper chamber’s 242 seats are up for grabs. And the DPJ-led ruling camp’s majority is at stake.

Nippon Soshinto has fielded 10 candidates, vowing to promote the decentralization of power. Tachiagare Nippon has endorsed 14 and Shinto Kaikaku 12, hoping to offer a third choice to voters discontented with both the DPJ and the LDP.