LDP may have to walk political tightrope

by and

Staff writers

New Komeito, the second-largest opposition party, is expected to formally decide to join the ruling bloc at its party convention today, paving the way for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s Liberal Democratic Party to secure a broader and more stable power base for its coalition government.

But the LDP will not have time to indulge itself in blind optimism. Before launching the new coalition, the LDP has to clear a series of hurdles, ranging from talks to forge policy agreements among members of the alliance to creating an arrangement for cooperation by the three parties for the next Lower House elections.

Because the Liberal Party is comprised mostly of conservative lawmakers and New Komeito is backed by the major lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, the LDP is most likely to play the difficult role of peacemaker in settling anticipated differences between its would-be partners.

“Each of the three parties holds different basic policies,” Obuchi said recently. “I think coordinating and reaching agreement on basic policy would be a hard nut to crack, but we can certainly overcome the differences.”

Even if the LDP manages to forge a policy consensus with the two parties, it still faces the risk of losing some longtime supporters, namely religious groups opposed to Soka Gakkai.

Nevertheless, acknowledging the plight of the LDP in the Diet, LDP executives continue to make strenuous efforts to bring New Komeito into the ruling alliance.

They anticipate that the LDP’s lack of a majority in the Upper House will continue for at least another nine years, because the shortfall is too large for the party to eliminate even after Upper House elections in 2001 and 2004.

After a severe setback in the July 1998 elections, the LDP was left with only 105 seats in the 252-seat chamber, and it is still short of a majority with the Liberal Party’s 12 seats.

The LDP is expected to embark on policy talks with its would-be allies as early as next week, but some political observers say that bringing New Komeito to the negotiating table will further complicate matters.

Even differences between the LDP and the Liberal Party over some key issues have not been completely ironed out, although they have been allies since January.

Norihiko Narita, a professor of contemporary Japanese politics at Surugadai University, says the success of upcoming policy talks involving the three parties will depend on how hard Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa pressures the LDP to accept his party’s demands.

“Compared with the previous tripartite coalition government of the LDP, the Social Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake, the policy differences of the LDP, the Liberal Party and New Komeito are minor,” Narita said. “So, it all depends on how hard Mr. Ozawa pushes.”

As the LDP wooed New Komeito to join its ranks, Ozawa did add pressure on the LDP to respect its earlier promise with the Liberal Party to cut 50 of the 200 Lower House seats elected through proportional representation. The rest of the 500-seat chamber is elected from single-seat constituencies.

The bill to effect this, submitted to the Diet based on a proposal by the Liberal Party, is currently awaiting deliberation. But Diet debate on the bill is unlikely to begin anytime soon, due to New Komeito’s strong opposition.

New Komeito fears the proposal will reduce its Diet seats drastically, because many of its Lower House members have been elected through proportional representation.

The party is even proposing a return to the multiseat constituency system in the Lower House, because the current single-seat system favors major parties to the disadvantage of smaller ones, like New Komeito, that lack broad-based support.

The LDP, at the moment, is caught in the middle and appears unable to find a compromise.

There are other issues that threaten to cause disparity between the LDP’s partners. For example, the Liberal Party is openly calling for revision of the Constitution, whereas New Komeito welcomes active debate over the issue but is generally cautious toward actually amending it.

Another key issue is whether the three parties can agree to cooperate in the next Lower House elections, which must be held sometime before October 2000.

In launching the two-party alliance in January, the LDP and the Liberals agreed to cooperate in the selection of candidates and campaigning. They decided to put priority on incumbent lawmakers from both parties in choosing candidates for each constituency.

But if this agreement is to be honored, the two parties appear headed for trouble in selecting candidates in at least six constituencies.

In addition to the incumbent lawmakers elected from those six, the parties also have incumbents elected through proportional representation who hope to run in those constituencies in the next elections.

Some senior LDP executives say coordinating incumbent candidates of the three parties is impossible, because such coordination has often proved difficult within the LDP alone.

Some even point out that it is unlikely supporters of the LDP and the Liberal Party will vote for candidates endorsed by New Komeito, because many conservative voters have anti-Soka Gakkai sentiments.

In fact, many longtime LDP supporters have expressed disgust with the planned alliance with New Komeito.

On Wednesday, the Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan (Shinshuren), comprising 66 religious groups, made it clear it cannot endorse the LDP’s alliance with New Komeito.

In a letter handed to LDP Secretary General Yoshiro Mori, the group said it does not understand how the LDP, which once severely criticized the close ties between Soka Gakkai and the defunct Shinshinto, to which most New Komeito members belonged, can dare forge an alliance with New Komeito.

“What happened to the LDP lawmakers who criticized Soka Gakkai in the past elections?” asked a spokesman for Rissho Koseikai, a Buddhist organization in Shinshuren and one of the LDP’s biggest support bodies. “We don’t understand why the LDP would try to include a certain religious group in the government.”

Alarmed by the results of the 1995 Upper House elections, in which Soka Gakkai, with its estimated 8 million members, is believed to have maximized its vote-organizing mechanism to support Shinshinto, the LDP launched a campaign against Soka Gakkai, citing “increasingly aggressive political activities by the giant religious organization.”

Calling Soka Gakkai Chairman Einosuke Akiya to the Diet in December 1995, the LDP and its allies criticized the sect’s political activities, saying they “go beyond the ordinary” and could create a situation where one religious group controls the state.

In the 1996 Lower House elections and last year’s Upper House polls, Rissho Koseikai supported 247 Diet members, of which 231 belonged to the LDP.

Although the LDP leadership is now repeatedly stressing to its traditional supporters in the religious sector the importance of stabilizing the government’s power base, it is unclear whether it can secure their continued backing.

Soka Gakkai meanwhile has remained calm about New Komeito’s plan to join the ruling bloc, saying the most important thing is whether New Komeito can realize its policy goals within the government.

Soka Gakkai spokesman Hiroshi Nishiguchi admitted there are certain members who are concerned about New Komeito’s tieup with the LDP, but added that both Soka Gakkai and other religious organizations should not get involved in political power struggles.

Some political observers also predict the planned tripartite alliance may overshadow the current rising popularity of the Obuchi administration.

According to a recent poll conducted by the daily Mainichi Shimbun, 45 percent of about 1,200 respondents expressed opposition to a tripartite coalition involving New Komeito, while only 14 percent of them supported it.

Surugadai University’s Narita says politicians’ recent inconsistency partly explains the relatively low support for the planned coalition.

“The parties that had the most hostile relationship now cooperate with each other,” he said, referring to the fierce rivalry between the LDP and Shinshinto under Ozawa’s leadership just a few years ago.

LDP leaders behave as if their earlier criticism of Soka Gakkai’s political activities was a thing of the past. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka told a news conference last week that Soka Gakkai is now a “modest religious group” and that New Komeito follows the principle of separation of religion and politics. “Such a flip-flop of politicians and political parties confuses the people and will irk voters,” Narita said.