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Playing both sides of the fence

Interest groups find it prudent to back both LDP and DPJ

by Masami Ito

NAGANO — Last summer’s historic victory by the Democratic Party of Japan in the Lower House election shook the national political structure to the core, including voting patterns.

The Liberal Democratic Party had long dominated the block votes of interest groups. For these organizations, it was important to support the ruling party to keep some influence in policymaking.

But times have changed and no one knows how long the DPJ will remain in power, or if or when the LDP will climb back onto the throne.

Caught between the DPJ’s decreasing support rate and the LDP’s continued lack of popularity, various organizations are choosing to play it safe by backing candidates from the DPJ and LDP alike and keeping both sides at a distance.

Take the Nagano Medical Association’s political branch. According to Chairman Yutaro Onishi, the group, with 1,100 members, has been an “out-and-out” supporter of the LDP for decades, but for the first time it decided to also back the DPJ in this Sunday’s Upper House election.

The group has announced its support for LDP candidate Kenta Wakabayashi, a certified public accountant, and DPJ candidates Toshimi Kitazawa, the current defense minister, and Yoko Takashima, a former local assembly member. They make up half of the six candidates running for two seats in Nagano Prefecture.

“After (last year’s) Lower House election, we reviewed the situation and looked at how the country was being managed and decided not to lean to one political party,” Onishi said. “We have decided to back the three candidates from the DPJ and the LDP to treat them all fairly.”

To show that the medical group has positioned itself in the middle, it has also officially seceded from the list of the LDP’s interest groups. But Onishi stressed that this move was not because the organization has turned against the LDP.

“There is a misperception that we broke away because we were anti-LDP,” Onishi said. “But that’s not the case. We decided not to favor either the LDP or the DPJ, and it would have been wrong to stay as an LDP special interest group.”

Although many interest groups in Nagano have remained part of the LDP camp, they have taken similar paths in deciding to support the DPJ as well, including the political branch of the Nagano Dental Association and the Nagano Construction Society.

“We decided to support the DPJ as well because it became the ruling party,” said Yukio Tanaka, executive director of the Nagano Construction Society. “It doesn’t matter which political party becomes the ruling party. What matters is that the ruling party has the power to run the country.”

The current membership of the group is 515 construction-related companies. And while the group has narrowed down its support of district candidates to the LDP’s Wakabayashi and the DPJ’s Kitazawa, Tanaka said the final choice will be up to each individual.

“We can’t force our members to vote for a specific person,” Tanaka said. “The organization decided to go with multiple candidates, but each person only has one vote and the members are free to choose whom to vote for.”

Keiji Kanai, who heads up the campaign team for LDP candidate Wakabayashi, said that while there are negative aspects of these interest groups moving to support both the LDP and the DPJ, candidates must win the support of the group’s individual members.

“Sure, there are negative factors,” Kanai said. “But in the end, it all depends on the judgment of each individual. So in the current situation, we are trying to win over each individual.”

On the other hand, for the DPJ’s Kitazawa, the campaign has turned out to be very different with the support of groups that previously only backed the LDP, even if this new support is only partial, said Mamoru Nakamura, secretary general of Kitazawa’s campaign office.

“There are about 300 organizations of various sizes that are backing Kitazawa, which is a huge difference from before,” Nakamura said. “Getting these recommendations from organizations has made it a lot easier to conduct the campaign.”

It appears this neutralization of local interest groups is a nationwide movement.

The medical association’s sister chapters in Kumamoto, Niigata and Tochigi prefectures and the construction society’s fellow branches in Gifu, Aomori and Saitama prefectures, for example, are all supporting both DPJ and LDP candidates in their districts.

“These interest groups are taking a wait-and-see approach, staying on neutral ground and not actively supporting the DPJ,” said Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan. “These organizations move only in their own best interests and they are just remaining quiet at the moment because they don’t know who will end up controlling the money.”

With election day fast approaching, various opinion polls have shown that the support rate for the new Naoto Kan administration is dropping rapidly.

One of Kan’s biggest mistakes was bringing to the table the possibility of raising the consumption tax to 10 percent. Shiratori believes the DPJ, even together with its coalition partner Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), won’t be able to win a majority in the Upper House.

“Kan overestimated the Cabinet support rate,” Shiratori said. “As it gets closer to the election, I think the support rate for the Kan administration will continue to drop. . . . The optimism that filled the DPJ when the Kan administration emerged is fading away.”