Leaders of New Komeito feel a sense of crisis ahead of the Nov. 9 general election for the House of Representatives.

The party’s participation since 1999 in a Liberal Democratic Party-led alliance has not necessarily helped it at election time. In the previous Lower House election, in 2000, it saw its seats fall from 42 to 31, the level it maintained until the 480-seat lower chamber was dissolved on Oct. 10.

With the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, apparently gaining upward momentum with its recent absorption of the Liberal Party, public attention has focused more on the LDP-DPJ rivalry than on smaller forces like New Komeito.

New Komeito is trying to demonstrate its presence with an ambitious goal of boosting its Lower House seats to 40.

Party chief Takenori Kanzaki said New Komeito hopes to win in all 10 single-seat constituencies where it plans to field candidates, and capture at least 30 seats in the proportional representation segment.

“We will ask voters whether they want to retain the stable coalition government under the LDP, New Komeito and New Conservative Party,” Kanzaki said, adding that the three parties have agreed to maintain the tripartite alliance regardless of the election outcome.

New Komeito plans to field 53 candidates — 10 in single-seat districts and 43 in the proportional representation category.

Kanzaki expressed hope for LDP support in the 10 single-seat races, because the LDP does not plan to field candidates in those districts, But that support is not a given.

Soka Gakkai, the nation’s biggest lay Buddhist organization and a key backer of New Komeito has helped get votes for LDP candidates when New Komeito candidates were not running against them, and New Komeito has felt frustrated by an apparent lack of LDP election help in return, despite their alliance.

Kanzaki is hopeful, however.

On policy matters, he pointed out that New Komeito has played a key role in spurring debate on reforming the public pension system, which is on the verge of financial collapse amid the rapidly aging population, and now advocates a gradual income tax hike to rectify the problem.

The government hopes to find a way to finance an increase in its share of the public pension burden by the end of the year. It earlier promised to raise its share of the cost to half of the total in fiscal 2004 from the current one-third.

The LDP was reluctant to take up the issue, fearing it would inevitably lead to moves to hike the consumption tax, a politically risky gambit ahead of an election.

But after strong urging from New Komeito, the LDP decided at the last minute to mention pension reform — without details — in its campaign platform announced earlier this week.

Although the LDP would only say it will submit a bill on pension reform to the 2004 regular Diet session, New Komeito has come up with a more specific idea: gradually raise the government’s burden to half by fiscal 2008 and finance it with an increase in the income tax.

Raising the government’s share all at once in fiscal 2004 is considered almost impossible, because that would amount to 2.7 trillion yen.

“Our idea is the most practical, and I believe New Komeito’s idea will be the core of the pension reform plan the ruling coalition compiles by the end of the year,” Kanzaki said.

Raising the consumption tax will also be “inevitable in the future,” he said, although he acknowledged that to do so now amid the stagnant economy would be unwise.

Kanzaki said New Komeito supports Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s goals of privatizing postal services and public expressway corporations, as well as dispatching Self-Defense Forces units troops to Iraq.

But his party draws the line on revising the Constitution.

The LDP, which is headed by Koizumi, has pledged to draw up a blueprint for a constitutional revision in 2005. Many in the LDP feel that Article 9, which renounces the use of force as a means of settling international disputes, should be revised to allow Japan to engage in collective defense.

Koizumi has publicly challenged Article 9 and said the lack of official recognition of the SDF as a full-fledged military is hard to understand.

New Komeito, many of whose supporters are sensitive to defense issues, believes Article 9 should be kept intact. “I don’t think there is a need to make any changes,” Kanzaki said.

He also said his party upholds the Constitution’s ban on collective defense.

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