The sun is scorching and many people are relaxing on holiday, including Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. But expectations of political turbulence in the month ahead may be disturbing the calm. Hashimoto interrupted his holiday to have a comprehensive physical checkup, apparently in preparation for the coming period of intense political activity.
The summer will begin to sizzle politically when the annual Bon holiday season ends this weekend, and will probably be marked by intraparty strife within Hashimoto’s Liberal Democratic Party.
This is expected to intensify toward early September when the LDP’s official campaign for the party presidency begins Sept. 8. Hashimoto, whose current term expires at the end of September, is expected to win a second two-year term unchallenged, observers say.
Both LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato and Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama have said his re-election is “99 percent sure.”
Hashimoto has managed to stay in the presidency despite the serious problems related to the failed “jusen” mortgage lenders, the hostage crisis in Peru and the amended Law on Special Measures for Land for the U.S. Military. He has served as prime minister for more than 580 days, the 13th longest in the postwar era.
Conventional practice holds that upon re-election, Hashimoto will immediately reshuffle his Cabinet and appoint new party executives.
However, there is already mounting tension between two rival forces in the LDP — those who support the party’s current alliance with the Social Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake, and others who favor a conservative union with Shinshinto, the largest opposition party.
The tension is expected to become fierce as the presidential election nears and the LDP looks set to experience a power struggle within its ranks once again, after relative calm for the past four years following its loss of single-party rule in summer 1993. At that time, major strife within the then largest LDP faction caused the defection of about five dozen lawmakers.
The question is whether Kato, who leads the LDP’s pro-alliance group, can retain the party’s No. 2 post. Others working on Kato’s side include LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki and Deputy Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka.
The other group, including such key figures as former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Kajiyama and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano, back the union with Shinshinto. They believe their goal would be best served by Kato’s departure from the powerful No. 2 post.
“Kato should step down if he insists that the LDP’s cooperative ties with the SDP and Sakigake be maintained,” said Construction Minister Shizuka Kamei, a prime advocate of the conservative union.
It is believed the group wants Kato’s ouster to quell public perceptions that he may eventually succeed Hashimoto as party president and prime minister. Kato has served as secretary general since Hashimoto became LDP president in September 1995.
Yosano is reportedly preparing to form a “study group” of veteran LDP members later this month in a bid to unite those seeking to a return to the fold of former LDP members who left the party, causing its fall from single-party rule. Many went on to form Shinshinto.
They are also believed to be conspiring to replace LDP policy chief Yamasaki, champion of the current alliance, with Yosano, former deputy policy chief. If policy negotiations by the three parties stall due to an uncompromising new LDP policy chief, this will effectively end the tripartite collaboration.
To balance the two rival forces within the LDP, Hashimoto plans to ask Kajiyama to stay on as chief Cabinet secretary, according to sources.
But Kajiyama, who is increasingly dissatisfied with Kato, has made no commitment to retain that post.
“We should not indulge in old-fashion intraparty strife, which had often been due to our arrogance in the old days (when the LDP monopolized politics),” Kato has said.
“For the past three years, we have promoted policy-related affairs well, consulting with our coalition partners. Thanks to our humble behavior, I believe we’ve succeeded in recovering public trust,” Kato said.
The LDP had been high-handed to some extent during its 38-year-long one-party rule, and there had been constant power struggles within the party, which partly helped distance voters from the LDP, he said.
“If we resume such strife, voters will again walk away from us,” Kato said.
Kato, working with other party officials, has called on independent lawmakers and others from the opposition forces to join the LDP. The attempts have been successful so far and gradually increased the number of LDP seats in the Lower House from 239, after the October 1996 general election, to 250.
“I think we will grab the majority of 251 seats by September,” Kato said. The overwhelming strength of the LDP in the nation’s politics is unlikely to be challenged for some time. “But we should remember that we should be humble,” Kato said.
Kamei has claimed he does not intend to touch off a power struggle by promoting the tieup with Shinshinto — which is made up of many LDP deserters — but he is worried about the future of important issues if the LDP places priority on maintaining ties with the SDP, its previous longtime arch foe.
“The current LDP-led alliance should be changed in order to deal with vital issues such as administrative and fiscal reforms, the review of the 1978 Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines, and a possible enactment of a law to efficiently cope with military conflicts near Japan,” he said.
Some agree that the biggest challenge for the tripartite alliance is how to reach a consensus over the ongoing review of the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation.
The LDP and the SDP, foes until 1994, have considerably different security policies. The LDP hopes to maintain good ties with the U.S., while the SDP has sought to limit the scope of defense cooperation with the U.S. military.
This difference shook the two-way cooperation in April. The LDP wanted to pass a bill to revise the Law on Special Measures for Land for the U.S. Military in order to allow the government to continue leasing plots from unwilling landowners in Okinawa Prefecture.
The SDP, together with the Japanese Communist Party, voted against the bill. But the measure cleared the Diet with the support of all parties, including Shinshinto.
The SDP also has its own dilemma over whether to maintain ties with the LDP or to stop its cooperation.
Ambivalence on the issue has increased because the SDP realizes well that only by maintaining relations with the LDP can the small party, which now has only 15 seats in the Lower House, achieve some of its policy goals. However, the SDP is also aware that it will probably lose seats in the Upper House election scheduled for next summer if it retains its LDP ties, inviting a recurrence of last October’s poll nightmare.
Anticipating trouble between the LDP and SDP over the security issue, Nakasone, Kajiyama and Kamei have said the LDP should seek wider cooperation toward a review of the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines. This is taken to mean the LDP should join with Shinshinto.
However, Kato countered by asserting, “If the nation’s second largest political party joins the largest political party, parliamentary politics will disappear from this country.”
In reality, there is persistent resistance to Shinshinto leader Ichiro Ozawa from a number of LDP members, who blame him for the LDP’s loss of power four years ago when he defected with about 60 colleagues.
However, Shinshinto, formed in December 1994 by eight defunct parties and a parliamentary group, has been divided ever since due to constant internal strife.
Since last October’s general election, 33 lawmakers have left Shinshinto. Now the party has only 133 seats in the Lower House.
Faced with a major crisis within the party, Ozawa, who has gradually lost influence as party leader, has decided for the sake of survival to support the tieup with the LDP, abandoning his original aim to defeat it.
However, dissatisfied with Ozawa’s change of tack, 45 members of the now-defunct Komeito and 24 from the now-defunct Democratic Socialist Party are debating whether to stay in Shinshinto.
Ozawa’s term as the party president expires in December, and an election to choose the next chief will have to be held.
“It is uncertain if Ozawa can hold the position, or if somebody will replace him. There is a chance Shinshinto will cease to exist in December,” said a party lawmaker, who asked for anonymity.
However, even if this happens, a conservative union will face opposition from about 20 legislators from three opposition parties who announced in July plans to form a “study group” later this month to counter the tieup.
The members, from Shinshinto, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Taiyo Party, include such prominent figures as the DPJ coleader Yukio Hatoyama, his partner, Naoto Kan, and former Prime Minister and Taiyo Party leader Tsutomu Hata.
Hatoyama recently expressed a desire for the study group to become a party, uniting liberal forces and triggering a political “Big Bang.”
However, it remains to be seen if his dream will come true, because all three parties involved in the group have their own internal problems with the plan.
Takeshi Noda, policy chief of Shinshinto, last week expressed reservations about the group. “It seems they want to break up Shinshinto,” he said.