‘Third force’ had high hopes but got stung

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The “third-force” parties that ran in Sunday’s Lower House election hoped to win enough seats to serve as a powerful check to the established parties but got crushed at the polls.

They’ve now turned their focus to next summer’s Upper House election.

For Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), Sunday’s poll was proof the Osaka-based party founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto still has a long way to go to convince voters elsewhere that it’s a credible national force. Despite months of effort and planning, and predictions earlier this year the party might win over 200 seats, it ended up with just 54.

But Nippon Ishin is not impotent. With 54 seats, it can submit its own budget-related bills and no-confidence motions against the Cabinet.

It was speculated before the election that Nippon Ishin might try to team up with the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc that was expected to emerge after Sunday, but now that the LDP and its ally won more than the 320 seats needed for a supermajority, analysts say Nippon Ishin’s stock has dropped.

“The results put Nippon Ishin in a much weaker position to pressure the LDP-New Komeito coalition,” said Yuji Yoshitomi, an Osaka-based journalist who covers issues related to Hashimoto and Nippon Ishin.

Nippon Ishin’s leaders, including Hashimoto, party head and ex-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, repeatedly used the phrase “ze-ze, hi-hi,” which can mean unbiased, or fair and just, to describe the party’s approach to other parties. But they stressed there were areas where the LDP, at least, and Nippon Ishin might agree.

“On issues like education and defense, our views are similar. We don’t want to oppose just for the sake of opposing,” Hashimoto said.

But tensions between the Tokyo faction of Ishihara and hisallies, and the Osaka faction, which includes Hashimoto and most Nippon Ishin Diet members, could create interparty chaos in the months ahead. Many around Hashimoto have said it was a mistake to merge with a force led by the 80-year-old Ishihara, who won a Lower House seat in his Tokyo proportional representation segment Sunday.

He defended it as a necessary measure, given Nippon Ishin’s inexperience. With Ishihara now back in the Diet for the first time in decades, however, Hashimoto also said the party needed to rethink its organizational structure.

Hashimoto and Matsui are also looking ahead to next summer’s House of Councilors election, in which they hope to run if one hurdle is overcome.

“If the rules governing Upper House candidates are changed to allow local government heads to run for an Upper House seat, we’ll take up the challenge,” Hashimoto said.

For Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan), the election was a disaster. The party was a hastily arranged shotgun marriage between founder Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada and local residents opposed to nuclear power, and Ichiro Ozawa and his veteran lawmaker allies. It entered the poll with 121 candidates and hoped to become the top third-force party.

In the end, Nippon Mirai won just nine seats, including two single seats that were won by Ozawa and Shizuka Kamei, former head of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) and a longtime Ozawa ally.

“It was a huge shock to see no movement of votes toward our efforts to get out of nuclear power. We didn’t have time to get our new party going and our message didn’t resonate,” Kada said Sunday night.

What Ozawa will do next is the subject of much speculation. Kada said she’ll continue to work as Shiga governor. But the Ozawa merger left a bad taste among many of her Shiga supporters.

Perhaps the one winner among the third-force parties was Your Party. Entering the election with eight Diet seats and having decided not to merge, despite months of negotiations, with Nippon Ishin, Your Party ended up with 18 seats.