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Nippon Ishin, Yui no To take second shot at dethroning LDP

Parties taking wiser approach to merger after 'third force' implosion

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Second marriages are, at their best, a fresh start and the triumph of hope over experience. In the case of the recent political remarriage, as it were, of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) to Yui no To (Unity Party), both partners enter the union more experienced, and perhaps wiser, than the first time around, when Nippon Ishin, at least, hoped to become a “third force” in Nagata-cho.

But there is no shortage of gossipy wedding guests — pundits and journalists — arguing it’s either just a temporary fling that will soon fizzle out, or predicting it’s the start, as both sides claim, of something solid that will only grow with time.

After months of discussions and a breakup with his first political partner, former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, Nippon Ishin no Kai, led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, and Yui no To, headed by Kenji Eda and consisting of many former Your Party members, announced earlier this month they had reached a general policy agreement on seven issues that will form the basis of a merger expected to be finalized by the end of September.

The agreement starts with a call for fundamental structural reform that benefits local governments, reform that should be accomplished with changes to the Constitution. This is followed by pushing for an economic growth strategy centering on regulatory reform and a smaller bureaucracy.

Anti-nuclear and renewable energy advocates may welcome the third pledge, which calls for Japan to become a renewable energy “kingdom” and to make atomic power “fade out,” although there is no timeline for either goal. Hashimoto and Eda also agreed that renewable energy should be introduced via the private sector through the creation of as yet undefined market incentives.

The fourth area is collective self-defense. This topic was the subject of intense negotiations over the past several months, mostly because Nippon Ishin generally favored it while many in Yui no To were cautious or outright opposed. Under the agreement, both sides are now emphasizing that any dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces should be made within the bounds of protecting Japan, as opposed to only protecting another country.

The last three items include reform of the social security system to ensure sustainable payments, educational reform, and, for residents of the Tohoku region, a promise to support an accelerated local-led economic recovery combined with a central government-led response to the Fukushima meltdowns.

In announcing their agreement, Hashimoto and Eda said the new party, whose name, organizational structure and location are still being decided, was getting back to basics, which means pushing for a variety of reforms that will, they hope, empower local-level governments.

For his part, Hashimoto said that while he would support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when they were in agreement, administrative reform was an issue where Abe and his party were not doing much.

“In the Abe administration, integrated reform hasn’t progressed at all. The LDP is just thinking about the next election,” Hashimoto said at a joint news conference with Eda.

The seven-point agreement is the result of months of negotiations over 61 items on which a broad consensus was reached back in March. While both sides see empowering local governments as critical, there was no mention of specific strategies to accomplish this, such as the realization of one Osaka governmental entity or even the regional bloc system.

Hashimoto and Eda did come to a general consensus last spring on these issues, as well as turning the consumption tax into a local tax and for eventually abolishing nuclear power. They are expected to be included in the final policy agreement, although to what extent they will take priority among the new party’s Diet members is unclear.

The original agreement on collective self-defense, made before the Abe Cabinet’s decision in early July to reinterpret the Constitution, called for specifying the conditions under which the SDF should be dispatched. Nippon Ishin was always more enthusiastic about an expanded definition of collective self-defense.

But due to Yui no To’s resistance and following the public backlash against Abe’s handling of the debate, which was partially responsible for an LDP-backed candidate’s defeat in the Shiga gubernatorial election, Hashimoto and Nippon Ishin appear to have decided that a somewhat more cautious statement would be best to calm fears of Japan being dragged into a conflict that doesn’t directly threaten its interests.

Who, exactly, will head the new party remains under discussion. Given Nippon Ishin’s Osaka roots, though, the key question is what role Hashimoto will play, and whether he can, as a provincial mayor, influence the Diet group’s decision-making process.

Hashimoto and Eda also see the merger of Nippon Ishin and Yui no To as merely the first step toward a more general realignment, possibly with other members of Your Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, the Diet’s main opposition force. Currently, Nippon Ishin has 38 Diet members, 32 in the Lower House and six in the Upper House. Yui no To has nine in the lower chamber and five in the upper.

“Individual Diet members in the DPJ and Your Party have strengths that I hope can be utilized (by our new party),” Hashimoto said. “The DPJ has held power and many of its members have experience in the Cabinet. We have to create some sort of platform for cooperation with such people.”

Even if DPJ members sympathetic to the pair’s goals choose not to join their new party, the possibility of an interparty tie-up on certain policies won’t be ruled out as long as the DPJ clarifies what it stands for, Eda said.

But despite grand plans to become a major opposition force, the new party faces intense skepticism. A Jiji Press poll earlier this month showed 39 percent of the respondents had no expectations for the new party and 24.6 were generally pessimistic about its chances. Only 28.7 percent were either hopeful or generally optimistic the Hashimoto-Eda merger would work.

More troublesome for Hashimoto is that, as Osaka mayor, he still faces stiff opposition in the municipal and prefectural assemblies to the Osaka integration plan. Although local elections are more than six months away, members of Hashimoto’s political group, Osaka Ishin no Kai, are worried about keeping their seats, and are concerned their leader will be of little help in trying to build a national political base with Eda.

On the other hand, despite the setbacks, Hashimoto could still pull enough votes in the next Lower House election to get into the Diet, especially if he shows more political acumen this time around.

Like Richard Nixon in 1962, after he lost the California gubernatorial election, a lot of Tokyo political pundits seem to believe they don’t have Toru Hashimoto to kick around anymore. But politics is often about second acts — think Shinzo Abe, currently in his second stint as prime minister.

Whatever it means for Hashimoto in the long term, the merger shows it’s too early to write him off as a national political force, even if his new role appears to his audience to be more of a supporting actor rather than a lead.