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Staff writer Cashing in on the unpopularity of the “gigantic” ruling coalition, opposition parties are optimistic of making a big leap forward in the next general election — and forecasts by political analysts suggest they have a favorable wind behind them. But it is not clear if the opposition forces, in particular the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, have a clear strategy to seize power in the future as they try to ride the wave of public criticism directed at the alliance led by the Liberal Democratic Party. DPJ officials say the party sees the election as a first step in its goal to take power in the years ahead. “We are on the offensive,” said Tadao Maekawa, emphasizing the poor reputation of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s tripartite coalition of the LDP, Liberal Party and New Komeito. In fact, the coalition, which together controls 70 percent of the Lower House, succumbed to fierce resistance from the DPJ-led opposition and had to abort plans to ram pension reform bills through the Diet in the last session, which ended in mid-December. Once the campaign is started, Maekawa said, the DPJ will strongly criticize the ruling parties for the inconsistencies in their policies as well as their high-handed way of handling Diet proceedings, while simultaneously presenting voters with the DPJ’s vision for the nation’s future. Maekawa predicted that Obuchi could dissolve the Lower House as early as this month, setting the stage for an election in February. Political analysts say the LDP and DPJ are likely to have contrasting results in the election. While the DPJ, which currently has 94 Lower House members, is widely expected to increase its strength, the LDP could fail to retain its single-party majority in the 500-member chamber, in which it currently holds 269 seats (not including Speaker Soichiro Ito). LDP leaders have become so concerned about the election that Deputy Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka has set a target of winning 215 seats — more than 50 below its current strength. DPJ sources said the party aims to gain 150 Lower House seats by fielding candidates in 250 of the total 300 single-seat constituencies of the chamber. The rest of the 500 Lower House members’ seats are chosen through proportional representation. “If we can encourage voters to harbor concerns about the giant coalition, that will be advantageous to us. Throwing Diet (deliberations) into confusion and letting (the coalition) again steamroll controversial bills would be another plus,” said a senior DPJ lawmaker, who asked not to be named. The DPJ is not the only party hoping to make rapid strides in the next election, which must be held no later than October. “If we work hard, there will be chances ahead for us to take an unprecedented leap,” said Tadayoshi Ichida, election committee chairman for the Japanese Communist Party. Ichida claimed that compared with a decade ago, the Communist Party can expect more votes from people critical of the ruling camp as public “misunderstanding” of the party has been gradually dispelled following the collapse of communist regimes worldwide. Some observers predict the Japanese Communist Party could even jump to third place after the LDP and DPJ by increasing its Lower House strength from its current 26 seats to around 40, as the LDP’s coalition partners are expected to take a pounding in the upcoming election. Another opposition party, the Social Democratic Party, which now has 14 Lower House members, hopes to secure at least 21 seats in the new chamber — the required minimum for a party to propose amendments to a legislative measure. Lower House member Sekisuke Nakanishi, who is in charge of the SDP’s election affairs, said the party will try to appeal to voters by vowing to safeguard the pacifist Constitution from recent efforts both within and outside the Diet to review it. These three parties did manage to forge a united front as they challenged the overwhelming ruling alliance in the last Diet session, but it is an entirely different question as to whether they trust each other sufficiently to form a solid coalition to provide an alternative to the LDP-led alliance. As a strategy to win power, Ichida, of the Communists, maintained that the party is open to forming an alliance with any party except the LDP — and if necessary, the JCP will temporarily “freeze” its basic party principle of seeking to scrap Japan’s security alliance with the United States. The DPJ’s Maekawa, however, said the JCP’s offer is unwelcome, adding that it is an “illusion” on the part of the Communists for them to believe they can team up with the DPJ. “We would face a crushing defeat (in elections) if we formed a coalition with the JCP,” said Maekawa, explaining that DPJ supporters would not tolerate an alliance with a party whose diplomatic and national security policies are utterly irreconcilable with those of the DPJ. “Many of our party members would say that we would rather team up with the LDP than with the JCP.” In fact, many DPJ lawmakers, including President Yukio Hatoyama, are former LDP legislators and have often collided with left-leaning members of the party over key policy matters. DPJ officials maintain that the party must establish its position as “one of the two major parties,” along with the LDP, and they believe teaming up with other parties would do them more harm than good. “Among the six major parties, the Liberal Party and the SDP are on the way to disappearing, and New Komeito and the JCP are peculiar ones (backed by special interest groups),” a senior DPJ member said on condition of anonymity. “In the end, only the DPJ and LDP will remain as the last remaining ‘ordinary’ parties.” Still, Maekawa admitted that it will be extremely difficult for the DPJ alone to secure a simple Diet majority in the foreseeable future, and thus it will need partners if it is to take power. Since its creation in 1996 and the party’s expansion through mergers with various conservative groups in 1998, the DPJ has retained its position as the largest opposition camp, but its popular support has seen wild ups and downs. According to a December survey by Kyodo News, public support for the DPJ fell to 12.7 percent from 18.3 percent in the previous poll in October, although support for Obuchi’s tripartite alliance also dropped 6.2 points to 45.6 percent. It is not clear how many of the voters who do not support any particular party — and account for 30.5 percent of the electorate — will opt for the DPJ in this year’s election.

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