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LDP-DPJ grudge match may see unity after poll

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Friday’s dissolution of the Lower House sets the stage for a no-holds-barred grudge match between the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party, while emerging “third-force” political groups are seen struggling to raise public awareness enough to change the current two-party system.

For the DPJ, which is expected to be removed from office, the Dec. 16 Lower House poll is simply about collecting as many seats as possible. For the LDP, on the other hand, it presents an almost too good to be true opportunity to return to the power it lost in the 2009 election.

“We’ve waited three years and the battle starts today. . . . Winning the election is our mission for the people, and I would like to win this historical battle together with all of them,” LDP President Shinzo Abe said during a meeting of the party’s executive Friday morning.

Various media polls show the LDP, the biggest opposition force, is highly likely to emerge from the election with the largest number of Lower House seats, and the main focus is already switching to what kind of coalition government it might form and which parties it could ally with, including a possible grand alliance with New Komeito and the DPJ.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s abrupt dissolution of the Lower House caught third-force parties off-guard, including Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), and their lack of preparation for the poll could significantly affect the outcome.

Ever since the prime minister announced his plan Wednesday to dissolve the chamber, DPJ ranks have expressed their intention to quit the party to protest his decision to call an election the DPJ is almost certain to lose.

Analysts, including Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University, calculate the LDP and New Komeito together could win an outright majority.

“Noda knows that nothing would have changed even if he had postponed the election. DPJ lawmakers opposed to the dissolution just want to cling onto their seats for as long as possible” given their dim re-election prospects, Kawakami said. “That’s why it’s best to arrive at a clear decision once and for all. In Noda’s eyes, those who want to leave the DPJ are free to go.”

But even if the DPJ is roundly defeated, it could still exert considerable influence as the largest opposition force over Japan’s possible entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade accord, or if it were to form a coalition with other opposition parties based on common policies, the professor said.

“There is no way the DPJ can win the next election . . . but Noda may be able to trigger a political realignment over Japan’s participation in the TPP negotiations (by joining with Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai), or to form a grand coalition to push forward the party’s social and tax reforms,” Kawakami said. “In this way, Noda would have a free hand to team up with third-force parties or even the LDP, based on shared policies.”

Noda appears intent on making the TPP a key issue in the DPJ’s platform. Observers argue that if he states outright that Japan needs to join the trade initiative to boost its international competitiveness and breathe life into its stagnant economy, the DPJ may win over at least urban voters.

“I haven’t changed my mind about beginning negotiations with related parties on the TPP,” Noda reportedly told U.S. President Barack Obama over the phone, and his stance is backed by the domestic business community.

The regional free-trade discussions, which aim to abolish all tariffs among member states, have been a source of bitter division within the ruling party because some members, including former farm minister Masahiko Yamada, resolutely oppose Japan’s participating, citing the TPP’s expected negative impact on the farm industry.

For its part, the LDP has long voiced reluctance to Japan joining the TPP, although Abe began changing his tune after Noda announced the Lower House dissolution and indicated his party would be willing to negotiate on the accord with the U.S.

Immediately after he made that statement, however, LDP heavyweight Tadamori Oshima firmly denied the party would join the multilateral accord during a meeting with members from the farm sector.

Japan’s addiction to nuclear power is likely to be a key campaign issue. The DPJ earlier declared its intention of eliminating all atomic energy plants by the 2030s, while the LDP would reverse that policy, which it has called “irresponsible” and won considerable support from the business world as a result.

While the two largest parties steadily ready themselves for the election, smaller and emerging parties are scurrying to catch up. In a blatant attempt to recruit new members, Shintaro Ishihara, the former Tokyo governor and hawkish new leader of Taiyo no To (The Sunrise Party), announced the fledgling group would merge with the Nagoya-based Genzei Nippon (Tax Reduction Japan). Ishihara is also trying to form a larger alliance with third-force parties, including Nippon Ishin no Kai and Your Party.

But with little time left until the nation goes to the polls, the fundamentally divergent views of these parties on issues such as the sales tax hike, the TPP and nuclear power will make it difficult for them to cooperate, according to pundits.

And while the country’s major political players engage in a month-long battle while Japan is left in a political vacuum, the DPJ-led government still has a stack of key legislation that hasn’t cleared the Diet, including a bill to cut the number of Lower House lawmakers to slash costs and ratifying Japan’s participation in the Hague Convention on cross-border child abductions by their parents.

The DPJ also failed to incorporate its zero nuclear energy plan in the country’s new medium- to long-term energy policy.

Meanwhile, winter is quickly approaching in disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region, where the reconstruction process has been slow and difficult because of the narrow-minded political struggle that has dragged on all year in Tokyo.

Kawakami of Meiji Gakuin argued it is probably better that the DPJ has left many important goals unresolved because he believes they should be implemented by the next ruling party with a new mandate from the people.

“The DPJ government has very little support from the public and I think that many don’t want such a lame-duck administration to make crucial decisions,” Kawakami said. “That’s why the next election is important, and why the parties should hold thorough policy discussions during the campaign and show the public what they intend to do once in power.”