Staff writer

New Komeito appears to be edging closer to the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition, but it’s still uncertain about how far it will go.

Should it fully commit itself to the LDP-Liberal Party bloc and enjoy the status and power of the coalition, or retain a freer hand as an outside voting force that can influence the current alliance, which lacks a majority in the Upper House?

Reporters tag along with New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki around the Diet building in the hope of getting him to divulge his party’s intentions. But Kanzaki remains noncommittal.

“We are collecting various ideas to reach a conclusion on the matter by our party convention scheduled for July 24,” is his only reply. Many other members of the party remain similarly tight-lipped.

New Komeito, backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization, has long called itself a middle-of-the-road party.

Over the past decade, its relations with the LDP have changed back and forth. At crucial points, the party played the role of a reliable ally to make up for the LDP’s lack of a majority in the Upper House, but on other occasions it joined the rest of the opposition camp in forging an anti-LDP front.

During the current regular Diet session, the LDP-Liberal coalition and New Komeito, the No. 2 opposition force, established close ties when they joined hands to push bills through the legislature to cover updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines. The controversial wiretapping bill also cleared the Lower House after the coalition agreed on amendments by New Komeito — amid fierce resistance from the rest of the opposition camp.

But New Komeito’s wavering position toward a government-proposed bill to legally recognize the Hinomaru as the national flag and “Kimigayo” as the anthem — also a sensitive issue — illustrates the precarious nature of their ties.

The bill, which the government initially tried to submit to the Diet in March, was at the time believed certain to be approved during the current session with New Komeito’s support. But that scenario later unraveled when the party, due to concerns raised by its rank and file as well as its supporters, turned cautious and called for more time for discussion.

At one point, the government and the LDP, out of consideration for its would-be partner, appeared to have given up submitting the bill during the current session.

However, the government eventually adopted the bill and submitted it to the Diet Friday. It is widely believed that LDP leaders wanted to avoid casting the impression that the coalition cannot do anything without New Komeito’s endorsement, even though the fact remains that the bill will need New Komeito’s support to clear the upper chamber.

Now the LDP hopes to put the ties on a more solid footing.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi reportedly plans to ask New Komeito to join his Cabinet as a full coalition partner when he reshuffles the Cabinet as early as this summer.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka has also said New Komeito’s entry as a full Cabinet ally would be easier to sell to voters.

Soka Gakkai is believed to have backed the party’s entry into the coalition, a move that “may be an option if New Komeito can share its policies (with the LDP),” Einosuke Akiya, president of Soka Gakkai, was quoted as saying in a recent interview with a daily paper.

New Komeito has its own reasons to be desperate.

Its leaders are reportedly worried that the midsize party could suffer a serious setback in the next Lower House elections under the current electoral system, based on single-seat constituencies, which favor major parties at the expense of smaller forces.

Although New Komeito succeeded in setting up an interparty panel to discuss electoral reforms, it appears unlikely the current system will change before the next Lower House elections, which must be held no later than October 2000.

The current system was introduced in 1994, replacing a multiseat constituency system. When the last Lower House elections were held in 1996, New Komeito’s members belonged to the now-defunct Shinshinto, a powerful opposition force that had the potential to squarely confront the LDP in elections.

So the next elections will be the first for New Komeito to fight on its own under the current system. To survive as a sizable presence, it needs to either have the electoral system changed or seek campaign cooperation with major parties like the LDP.

By joining the coalition, the party may also be able to influence the timing of the next elections, urging Obuchi to delay a Lower House dissolution and give New Komeito time to prepare.

Still, New Komeito’s rank and file say they have mixed feelings toward entering a tripartite alliance with the LDP and Liberal Party.

“It is true that we have achieved several of our policy objectives by cooperating with the LDP and the Liberal Party in the current Diet session, and we can have a positive view toward the alliance,” one party member said.

But he said some colleagues doubt whether New Komeito’s policies would be accepted by the LDP as generously as they are now once the party officially joins the coalition.

Some also worry that the party will lose its individual color if it is absorbed in the coalition, he said.

New Komeito’s leaders are apparently trying to smooth over the divergent opinions of its ranks by placing importance on electoral reforms, which would help the party survive, according to Yoshiaki Kobayashi, professor of politics at Keio University.

“If so, the party should maintain a consistent position over the issue,” he said. “If it strikes a (compromise) deal over the matter after joining the coalition, New Komeito will be unable to explain the reason for becoming a part of it.”

For the LDP, it makes good sense to have New Komeito join the alliance. A tripartite bloc would have 357 seats in the 500-seat lower chamber and 141 in the 252-seat upper chamber.

Although the degree of New Komeito’s commitment is uncertain, its close ties with the coalition will continue at least until the next Upper House elections in 2001, Kobayashi said.

However, it remains unclear whether joining the LDP-Liberal coalition will benefit New Komeito in terms of voter support.

“If the three parties form a coalition, they can secure a majority in Nagata-cho, the nation’s political center,” Kobayashi said. “But it does not necessarily mean they can obtain support from a majority of voters.

“New Komeito’s decision, as well as how it explains its decision to the public, are certain to draw great attention.”

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