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Party shakeouts unlikely if the DPJ wins big-time

The latest major opinion polls seem to indicate that the general election on Aug. 30 will bring about a change of government in Japan, with the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) unseating the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Prime Minister Taro Aso as the predominant force in the Lower House. One is left with the question of whether there will be a new alignment of political parties and politicians.

Only until a couple of months ago, there was much speculation that a number of LDP lawmakers, fed up with the growing unpopularity of Aso, would revolt against the party and form new groups. Especially after Aso fired Internal Affairs Minister Kunio Hatoyama on June 20 over the latter’s opposition to the re-appointment of the postal services chief, Hatoyama was thought to be preparing to form a new party. The bid failed as he was able to gain support from only a handful.

This shows how incumbent LDP lawmakers are reluctant to leave the party even though its rate of approval has been dwindling. For one thing, leaving the party would deprive them of monetary and other crucial support needed for winning in the upcoming election. Moreover, even if one loses in a single-seat constituency, he or she could make a “comeback” by winning in the proportionate representation sector of the election if he remains a party member.

Yoshimi Watanabe, a former Cabinet minister who left the LDP, managed to form a mini-political party to oppose the LDP. But he learned a lesson the hard way when the candidates he supported in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July failed miserably.

Attention then focused on Takeo Hiranuma, who was thrown out of the LDP by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for opposing the latter’s pet theme of privatizing the postal services. He failed to gain sufficient support.

Such reluctance to revolt against the LDP is in stark contrast with the situation in 1993, when Morihiro Hosokawa formed the first non-LDP government in nearly four decades with the support of those who dared to abandon their affiliations with the LDP. They included big names like Masayoshi Takemura, who retired from politics in 2000; Yukio Hatoyama and Ichiro Ozawa, leader and acting leader, respectively, of the DPJ; and former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata.

According to political observers, the most likely outcome of the Aug. 30 general election is a resounding victory for the DPJ, which they say will win about 270 seats in the 480-seat Lower House, far exceeding the simple majority of 241.

If this happens, the number of seats held by the LDP, which stood at 306 when the Lower House was dissolved on July 21, will dwindle to about 160 — a far cry from the more than two-thirds majority it had enjoyed in coalition with its junior partner, Komeito.

There are a number of signs that point to such an election outcome. Early in June, the LDP conducted a secret survey on the prospects of 50 incumbent Lower House members who were said to be on the border line. The result showed that only three of the 50 were expected to win, while the remaining 47 appeared doomed to lose. This came as a big shock to those in charge of election campaigns who had hoped that if the result had been an even split, the LDP-Komeito coalition could have a reasonable chance of retaining a combined majority.

This dismal outlook for the Liberal Democrats showed no sign of improvement when their party suffered a crushing defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 12 at the hands of the DPJ. With the Aso Cabinet’s rate of approval hovering at around 20 percent, opinion polls by leading newspapers showed the DPJ with a commanding lead over the LDP. Asked which party they would cast their ballots for in the proportionate representation sector, twice as many voters answered “DPJ” as “LDP.”

If the DPJ scores a resounding victory as is generally predicted, there will likely be no major reorganization of political parties. It is true that the DPJ is made up of lawmakers a wide spectrum of political ideologies — from hawkish groups favoring a review of Japan’s long-established policy of not making, not possessing and not allowing the bringing in of nuclear weapons to leftists staunchly opposed to any attempt to revise the war-renouncing Constitution. Moreover, some members detest former party president Ozawa, who was forced to resign after his secretary was indicted for violating the election funding law.

Insiders point out, however, that once the DPJ takes control of the government, its members will come to experience the invaluable benefits accruing from running the government, and that with the chance of assuming Cabinet posts, they will forget about their ideological differences and unite themselves under the party leadership, just as the Liberal Democrats have done for the past half a century.

The only shakeup that could conceivably take place would be for certain Upper House LDP members to shift their affiliations to the DPJ under Ozawa’s maneuvering. He may just exercise his influence in order to secure a majority for his party in the Upper House. Even if his party wins big on Aug. 30, the number of DPJ seats in the 242-seat Upper House remains only 112, making it necessary to continue teaming up with the Social Democrats and other small groups.

It will take almost a miracle for the LDP to win a majority in the impending Lower House election. Even in the unlikely event the LDP takes full advantage of the unusually long lead time and wins close to 200 seats, the DPJ and other opposition parties will almost certainly gain more seats than the LDP-Komeito coalition.

Such an outlook all but precludes the possibility of initiatives for regrouping politicians across party lines being taken by Hiranuma and Watanabe, who left the LDP long ago, or by people like former LDP secretaries general Hidenao Nakagawa and Tsutomu Takebe, who follow Koizumi. To make matters worse for these heavyweights, they are fighting uphill battles for their own re-election.

Two years ago, Ozawa, who headed the DPJ, and then Prime Minister and LDP president Yasuo Fukuda agreed to form a “grand alliance” between the LDP and the DPJ. But the scheme proved abortive as Ozawa’s lieutenants vehemently opposed it. This time around, nobody seems to expect that such a drastic idea even to be considered.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.