Ominous clouds hung over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, on the eve of Tuesday’s start of official campaigning for the Sept. 11 general election.

Former posts minister Eita Yashiro had just announced he would run as an independent in the Tokyo No. 12 district, the home turf of New Komeito Deputy Secretary General Akihiro Ota.

Yashiro’s candidacy poses a threat to Ota, touted as a possible future leader of New Komeito, and has apparently stunned the party and its main support group, the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai.

The move came 11 days after Yashiro said he would not run in the district. He claimed he had cut a deal with LDP executives that in return he would be placed on the LDP ticket for the Tokyo proportional representation block.

But that pact was retracted when it came to light and party leaders drew flak for giving preferential treatment to Yashiro, who voted against Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal privatization bills in the House of Representatives in early July. None of the other postal rebels was given official LDP backing in the election.

“The LDP told me that I was in a different position than the other 36 (rebels),” Yashiro told supporters in front of his campaign office Tuesday. “That it was because the Tokyo No. 12 district holds the key to LDP-New Komeito” electoral cooperation.

In fact, New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki has said Yashiro’s decision to run “may negatively influence New Komeito supporters” who are being asked to back LDP candidates in other single-seat districts.

In the November 2003 general election, after collaboration with New Komeito, the LDP had Yashiro run on the proportional representation part of the ballot to help Ota get elected.

Ota beat Democratic Party of Japan candidate Yukihisa Fujita by a mere 3,590 votes, and Fujita may reap the benefits of the Ota-Yashiro faceoff in the Sept. 11 race. The other candidate is the Japanese Communist Party’s Ken Nonoyama.

Since the 2003 race, ties between the two coalition parties have become cozier than ever.

The traditional LDP support base in rural communities has been in steady decline, and an increasing number of LDP members have become dependent on New Komeito and Soka Gakkai, whose vote-drawing power is said to translate into some 20,000 to 30,000 votes on average in each of the 300 single-seat districts.

As of Wednesday, New Komeito has endorsed a record 232 LDP candidates running in single-seat districts, while the LDP has endorsed all nine New Komeito candidates in single-seat districts.

Before the 480-seat house was dissolved, the LDP had 212 seats excluding the 37 members who voted against the bills, while New Komeito held 34.

Yashiro’s case aside, some experts say it remains an open question whether LDP-New Komeito electoral cooperation will be as effective as it was in the past.

One reason is New Komeito is not fully prepared for the election, which was called suddenly.

“Up to now, New Komeito has fully backed LDP candidates in many single-seat districts in exchange for having those candidates ask supporters to vote for New Komeito in the proportional representation blocks,” said former DPJ lawmaker Sadao Hirano, a close aide to DPJ heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa.

“But this time, New Komeito and Soka Gakkai have been thrown into the election suddenly, and have been unable to make thorough preparations after the exhaustive Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election” in July, he observed.

Hirotsugu Terasaki, a Soka Gakkai vice president, admitted the Lower House dissolution came “suddenly,” and his organization was poorly prepared.

“We’re not a political organization, but a support group,” he said. “Therefore, we must first have New Komeito explain in minute detail to our members the (political) achievements it has made, the policies it will advocate and the significance of the coming election, before gaining understanding and support from them as well as their friends.

“Proceeding step by step with such scrupulous care, we usually make the decision to provide support three months before the election,” and then start making preparations to support the party, he added.

Considering that this election is coming on such short notice, it would be “a major victory” if New Komeito manages to retain its 34 seats, Terasaki said.

The LDP, for its part, may place greater importance on increasing its own seats in proportional representation blocks on the strength of Koizumi’s popularity instead of giving New Komeito candidates a leg up, according to Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of law at Nihon University.

Gains in the number of proportional representation seats would make up for prospective LDP losses in the single-seat districts, where many postal rebels are running either as independents or as members of newly formed parties, Iwai said.

“It’s going to be a tough election for New Komeito,” he said, noting the party may not be able to retain its 34 seats, let alone garner 8 million votes as it did with all-out support from the LDP in 2003.

“Nevertheless, the party needs to wield a strong presence by gaining as many votes as possible so it can continue to function as a ‘life-support system’ for the LDP, which is unlikely to win a majority by itself,” Iwai said.

At the same time, some local-level supporters of New Komeito also cooperate with the DPJ in some areas, including Nagoya and Osaka, where the party has traditionally had ties with the now-defunct Democratic Socialist Party, many of whose members joined the DPJ, Iwai pointed out.

New Komeito also has not endorsed many of the LDP candidates who are running against the postal renegades, partly because it has close ties with some of them, like former LDP Executive Council chief Mitsuo Horiuchi in the Yamanashi No. 2 district.

“Anything goes for New Komeito, as long as it can exchange its support for other candidates in single-seat districts in return for their support for New Komeito in proportional representation blocks, Hirano said.

“There’s no explaining it. It’s just in the best interest of the party to cling to power,” he maintained.

For the time being, Nihon University’s Iwai said, New Komeito has no choice but to remain in the same boat with the LDP under Koizumi, who has successfully turned his battle with the postal privatization opponents into a widely watched made-for-TV drama and boosted his Cabinet’s support ratings in opinion polls.

As for the opposition camp, DPJ President Katsuya Okada has said his party is aiming to win a majority single-handedly.

“That is a very high hurdle for the DPJ,” which has been overshadowed by Koizumi’s theatrics and has so far been unable to unite with other opposition parties — the Japanese Communist Party and Social Democratic Party — to come up with a plan to wrest power from the coalition, Iwai said.

Some unions of local government workers and public corporations still back the SDP, while the JCP still fields candidates in most of the 300 single-seat districts, effectively preventing its block votes of about 10,000 to 20,000 from flowing to the DPJ in many districts, he said.

“This is no time for quarreling among opposition parties,” Hirano said. “The opposition parties cannot defeat the alliance between the all-powerful prime minister and New Komeito unless they take a broad view and present a united front.”

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