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Opposition no match for ruling bloc

Eda gambit viable, just for subsidy?

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Cresting criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over his use of strong-arm tactics to pass the contentious state secrets bill gives ex-Your Party Secretary-General Kenji Eda the momentum to build a new opposition party by year’s end.

The only problem is his timing might be off.

While Eda may have the support of opposition lawmakers, who are routinely routed by the ruling camp, critics say there’s little chance his new party will reshape the political landscape anytime soon, not since Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito alliance roared back to the helm of politics in last December’s general election and solidified its mandate in the July Upper House poll.

“It would be difficult for Eda’s vision to have a ripple effect as each of the opposition parties and party executives have different political intentions,” said Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University and former aide to ex-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan. “Political realignments will be difficult to achieve until there’s an election in sight.”

Eda and the 13 lawmakers who left with him accuse Your Party chief Yoshimi Watanabe of engaging in back-door negotiations with Abe over the state secrets law and betraying their mission to establish an anti-LDP alliance.

Eda is racing against the clock. To qualify for government subsidies, he has to form his party, with at least five Diet lawmakers, by the end of the year.

Since the government subsidy system was introduced in 1994, however, the track record for such hastily created parties hasn’t been good. Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan), formed in 2010, Kizuna Party, formed in 2011, and Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First), formed in 2012, no longer exist.

What’s more, succeeding elections have not been kind to incumbent proportional-representation candidates. Seven of Kizuna’s nine members were Lower House lawmakers elected by this system, and all quickly lost their seats last December. All 13 defectors standing with Eda won their proportional-representation seats in the past two elections.

To attract more members, Eda launched a study group Tuesday with 85 lawmakers from the Democratic Party of Japan and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), including ex-DPJ Secretary-General Goshi Hosono and Ishin Secretary-General Yorihisa Matsuno.

“I would like to spar with you, believing that sharing the same political agenda will eventually lead to political realignment or formation of a new party,” Eda said at the beginning of the meeting, without stipulating what that agenda might incorporate or how it will play with voters.

While they share Eda’s goal of overthrowing the “high-handed” LDP-led bloc, the lawmakers aren’t prepared to march in lockstep behind him just yet, when jostling for power is still the name of the game.

Though it is the largest opposition party, the DPJ has just two more seats than Ishin after one of its Lower House members departed recently.

Ishin co-leader Toru Hashimoto, who doubles as Osaka mayor, is eager to see Eda peel off DPJ lawmakers, making his own the largest opposition party.

“I hope some DPJ lawmakers will follow Eda’s suit,” Hashimoto said Monday.

A supporter of cross-party cooperation, the DPJ’s Hosono told reporters after Tuesday’s study group that he wants to rebuild his party, not join or form a new one. The former DPJ secretary-general launched a de facto faction within the party in October, in an apparent effort to win the next presidential election in 2015.

“Even if the three parties create a new party, the question remains who will be the leader of the new political force,” said Narita. “For Hosono, becoming the DPJ leader is a safer bet.”

DPJ President Banri Kaieda is even warier than Hosono about joining hands with Eda.

“We will first rebuild the party to serve as a counterbalance to Abe’s LDP,” said Kaieda, though his ability to lead the party has repeatedly been called into question.

Meanwhile, Eda and Hashimoto share the goal of creating a viable alternative to the LDP-Komeito coalition. But first Hashimoto must iron out differences with former Sunshine Party of Japan lawmakers who came on board with Shintaro Ishihara, the other leader now of Ishin. Those lawmakers are skeptical about cooperating with Eda’s camp.

Narita believes another opposition party may not form until the next scheduled election, an Upper House contest in 2016, draws closer. It’s likely Abe will call a snap election then for the lower chamber as well.

“Politicians like to sit on the fence so that they will get elected,” said Narita. “Eda’s group is one of their options.”