National / Politics

Power of LDP support groups waning

Party jittery over July election as Koizumi reforms trigger desertions

About 5,000 people gathered in Sapporo on May 23 to attend a convention of the national association of special post office chiefs, a longtime supporter of and the biggest vote-gathering machine for the Liberal Democratic Party.

“We profoundly appreciate the cooperation of postmasters in the House of Representatives election last November,” said Fukushiro Nukaga, chief of the LDP policy affairs council, in a speech. “We ask for your further support for Kensei Hasegewa in the House of Councilors election in July.”

Hasegawa, a former bureaucrat at the posts and telecommunications ministry, is an LDP candidate for the Upper House election expected to be held July 11. He is backed by the postal association.

But many members of the postal association say their legendary vote-gathering power is a thing of the past.

“We have been instructed (unofficially by the association) to gather at least 50 votes each” in the upcoming election, said a post office chief who asked not to be named. “But we probably will not be able to gather as many votes we did in the in the last election (in 2001).”

In the 1980 Upper House election, the group of some 19,000 special post office heads and another group of retired postal chiefs showcased their vote-gathering power, racking up more than 1 million votes for an LDP candidate.

In the 2001 election, however, the groups could only gather about 480,000 votes for an LDP candidate they were backing.

There are about 25,000 post offices nationwide, of which some 19,000 are called special post offices. Other types are large general post offices that conduct both mail collection and delivery, along with small contracted offices in remote areas.

Powerful local figures have traditionally served as the heads of special post offices. Even though they are public servants, they have often been succeeded by their children, following nominal screening procedures.

For the upcoming election, many of the postal group members are maintaining a low profile to avoid the problems they faced in the 2001 race. That election led to the arrest of 16 people, including elite postal bureaucrats and postal group members who were charged with violating the Public Offices Election Law, which bans public servants from campaigning for a specific candidate.

LDP member Kenji Koso, whom the association backed, resigned from the Diet to take responsibility.

Experts say the LDP’s many other support groups are also losing their vote-gathering power because fewer members are following instructions to campaign for specific candidates.

Tomoaki Iwai, professor of politics at Nihon University, meanwhile noted that the introduction of the proportional representation system in the 1983 Upper House election led to a decline in vote-gathering power among LDP support groups.

“Members of a support group have come to focus on lobbying party executives to put the group-backed candidate on top of the party’s roster rather than election campaign itself,” Iwai said.

Under the PR system, seats are allocated to each party in accordance with the number of votes won by the party. Party candidates are thus elected according to the party roster.

The number of rank-and-file LDP members belonging to industry groups backing the party was at its peak in 1991, at 4.6 million. But the figure had dropped to some 860,000 in 2003, according to LDP officials.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s structural reform drive, which is hampering the interests of many traditional LDP support groups, has also affected campaign activities.

The postmasters’ group fears that unprofitable offices will be slashed or reorganized if Koizumi’s plan to privatize the nation’s postal services comes to fruition.

Agricultural cooperative associations, meanwhile, are opposed to free-trade agreements that would further open Japan’s farm market, while construction industry groups are disgruntled with Koizumi’s efforts to slash public works projects.

Some bodies seem to be distancing themselves from the LDP, such as Nihon Ishi Renmei (the Japan Medical League), a nationwide doctors’ group boasting 80,000 members.

Although the group is backing LDP candidate Hidetoshi Nishijima, a league board member, many of its members are opposed to the medical reform policies of the Koizumi administration, such as allowing hospitals to be run by stock corporations.

“Our group has said that it will progress together with the ruling LDP,” said Akihiro Morimoto, a senior group member in charge of election campaigning. “But that does not mean we will back the party forever.”

Since taking office in April 2001, Koizumi has counseled LDP candidates against depending too heavily on organized votes, telling them that they should appeal to individual voters.

Although Koizumi’s public popularity brought the LDP a sweeping victory in the 2001 Upper House election, the party now appears to be desperate for support from all groups.

“It will be a tough race,” said a senior LDP member of the Upper House who asked not to be named. “It is getting more and more difficult to foresee the outcome of an election.”

In an effort to gear up for the poll, the LDP held a rally at a Tokyo hotel last week attended by some 3,000 people representing 1,500 industry groups.

With pension-related scandals and the deteriorating security situation in Iraq casting a pall over campaigning, Koizumi himself attended the meeting.

“I, as the president of the LDP, ask you to help us win the Upper House election,” Koizumi told the gathering.

The LDP is also seeking support from organizations that have not backed the party before.

At a party convention in January, the LDP set up a committee on nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations in an apparent effort to garner their support.

Last month, LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe and Mikio Aoki, an LDP heavyweight in the Upper House, met with senior officials of the Japan Buddhist Federation, which comprises 58 traditional Buddhist denominations, to call for their support in the election.

The LDP’s relations with the JBF were soured after the party formed a coalition with New Komeito, backed by the nation’s biggest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai.

But some LDP members are doubtful that the party can build up relations with groups of this kind overnight. “It would take time to nurture relationships with them and gain all-out support,” an LDP official said.

Iwai of Nihon University noted that the LDP’s political power will decline unless it succeeds in reaching out to new voter segments, including unaffiliated voters.

Moreover, industry organizations need to shift from the status of vote-gathering machines to the status of bodies that can submit their own policy proposals to the LDP, he said, citing the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) as a role model.

In January, Nippon Keidanren unveiled policy evaluations of the LDP and the main opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, that will serve as a reference for member companies wanting to make political donations.

Nippon Keidanren has also submitted policy proposals on various occasions.

“Organizations should propose their policies and ask both the LDP and opposition parties what they could offer,” Iwai said. In that way, industry groups, politicians and parties will be able to influence one another in a healthier manner, he said.

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