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Survival of SDP, Kokumin Shinto at stake

by Mie Sakamoto

Kyodo News

Two tiny parties that clashed with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan over policy and then made different decisions on whether to stay in the DPJ-led bloc face a fight for survival in the Upper House election.

The Social Democratic Party took the more dramatic route, severing its ties with the DPJ following their dispute over the Futenma military base in Okinawa, while Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) stayed in the ruling coalition after its leader left the Cabinet in the brouhaha over how to handle postal reform.

Both parties now appear to be struggling to draw significant voter support.

On the stump in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro commercial district when official campaigning got under way last week, Kokumin Shinto leader Shizuka Kamei sought support for the party’s decision to stay in the ruling coalition, even though the DPJ “broke its promise.”

Kamei resigned June 11 as minister in charge of the banking sector and postal reform to protest the DPJ’s decision to hold the Upper House poll on schedule on July 11 and not extend the recent Diet session, thus preventing a floor vote on his pet bill to roll back the postal system privatization, a move Kokumin Shinto considered vital.

Kokumin Shinto’s decision was in contrast to that of the SDP, which left the coalition in late May to maintain its opposition to the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the island prefecture.

“Please understand why we remain in the coalition although the DPJ broke its promise. Because we can’t do anything if we are an opposition party,” Kamei told the audience, while voicing opposition to the DPJ’s move toward raising the consumption tax.

“We, as a coalition party, will never allow the tax hike,” Kamei said, stressing the significance of his party being the DPJ’s coalition partner despite their contradicting views on some policies.

In this month’s Upper House election, Kokumin Shinto is trying to reach out to conservative voters by highlighting its opposition to policies advocated by the DPJ, including allowing married people to use different surnames and giving permanent foreign residents the right to vote in local-level elections, rather than underscoring the party’s well-known pursuit of stifling the postal privatization.

“It is our strategy to win over voters who are not only supporters of our postal reform,” a party source said.

Whether such tactics will prove successful is uncertain.

Company employee Mariko Yamazaki, 45, was sympathetic to Kokumin Shinto’s decision to stay in the ruling coalition.

“The party can’t participate in decision-making if it isn’t part of the government,” she said.

But Yamazaki said she won’t vote for Kokumin Shinto, as she favors another party.

“There are no people other than Mr. Kamei in Kokumin Shinto who stand out, and the party may not be able to remain in the coalition if the DPJ wins a majority in the Upper House,” she said.

The SDP is striving to hold on to the popularity it gained by leaving the coalition when leader Mizuho Fukushima was booted from her Cabinet post for opposing the Japan-U.S. agreement to relocate Futenma.

According to a Kyodo News poll, the SDP’s support rate rose to 4.5 percent in late May shortly after Fukushima was kicked out of the Cabinet, from 1.6 percent a month earlier.

In a poll conducted June 19 and 20, however, only 1.5 percent of respondents said they would vote for the SDP in the proportional representation segment of the election.

Campaigning in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on June 24, Fukushima criticized the DPJ’s decision to dismiss her.

“The SDP and I have never changed. The government did. . . . Dismissing me is the same as discarding Okinawa,” she said. “We will listen and respond to the feelings of Okinawan people and make all-out efforts to prevent the construction of a new base there.”

SDP supporter Kiyoshi Mizukoshi, 58, backed the decision to leave the coalition, saying, “The SDP kept its word.”

Meanwhile, 49-year-old housewife Hiromi Honda was critical.

“It can’t be helped that the SDP left the coalition, but I won’t vote for it. It would have had more chances to get its opinions through if it stayed.” she said.

“Because the SDP left the coalition, it can no longer do anything. When the party was at the core of the government, I listened to the party’s opinions, but I don’t feel like listening to them now.”

The decision may have prevented the party from alienating its existing supporters, but it is unlikely to have garnered new followers because many people outside Okinawa probably think the Futenma issue is now settled, according to Keio University professor Yoshiaki Kobayashi.

Kokumin Shinto meanwhile had no choice but to remain in the coalition so it could continue to press for passage of the postal bill in the future, Kobayashi said. But the party is expected to face difficulty attracting wide-ranging public support other than organized votes, he added.

Under the election system, “The best chance (for small parties like Kokumin Shinto and the SDP to increase their Diet members) is gaining seats through the national proportional representation section of the Upper House election,” Kobayashi pointed out.

“Considering (the small numbers of) their seats, it can safely be said that this election will be the one on which the two parties’ existence will be staked,” he said.