In August 2005, 37 Liberal Democratic Party members held their heads high as they voted against LDP President and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s bills to privatize the postal system, legislation they felt was being forced on them.

Their “betrayal” cost them their party membership, and when the general election was held the following month, the LDP ran others on its ticket in their place, many successfully.

More than a year has passed and 11 of the postal reform rebels have begged their way back into the party — and the LDP on Monday officially approved their comeback to the party — a move many of the newcomers see as a betrayal of them.

Ever since word first broke that some of the postal reform foes might be allowed back in the LDP, tension has been building and opponents to the move, especially the party’s freshmen lawmakers, have grown increasingly vociferous.

Soon after the rebels joined with the opposition camp and voted down the postal privatization package, Koizumi followed through with his threat and dissolved the Lower House. In the subsequent September 2005 general election, he kept those foes off the LDP ticket.

And he fielded high-profile “assassin” candidates to run against them. The result was a sweeping victory for the LDP — winning 296 seats out of the 480 in the Lower House, 83 of them held by freshmen.

Koizumi then convened the Diet last fall to vote on the postal bills again. Thanks to the majority his ruling bloc had amassed, the legislation passed handily — and was even backed by the 11 postal rebels who now want back into the fold.

The return of 11 of the rebels, which has been endorsed by Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, will put the freshmen LDP lawmakers in a bind, at least if a Lower House election looms, and some LDP members, including the so-called assassins, have formed a group to oppose the readmission.

The goal of Abe and senior Upper House LDP lawmakers in campaigning for the rebels’ return is the reinstatement of their strong home district support groups, which the LDP feels are necessary for the party to prevail in next summer’s Upper House election, especially now that Abe and his Cabinet are dropping in public polls.

Amid the steady fall in public support for the Cabinet and the LDP’s struggle to stage a graceful comeback for the rebels, Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa required the 11 to sign a covenant vowing to follow the party’s campaign pledges, specifically postal privatization, express regret for their “antiparty” activities, obey party rules, and if they violate their oath, to exit the Diet.

“I never dreamed (the postal rebels) would sign (the oath), which was a very high hurdle,” said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a professor of political science at Keio University in Tokyo. “But I guess they did whatever they had to do to return (to the LDP).”

The 11 submitted their request for readmission along with the covenant Nov. 27. The following day, several held a news conference in a bid to justify their reversed stance.

Their excuse for voting against the reforms and then for them after the election: They were never really opposed to postal privatization, just the way Koizumi was forcing the legislation on them.

The “action (by the 11) to seek readmission itself is ridiculous,” Kobayashi said, noting elections are how voters ensure that the lawmakers they endorse uphold public opinion. “(The rebels) obtained their Diet seats by voting against the postal reform bill (that the election showed the public supported).”

Kobayashi pointed out that the real betrayal was committed by those postal reform foes who, ousted from the LDP, ran as independents on their antireform position, only to reverse themselves and vote for it just because the handwriting was on the wall in terms of public opinion and their position was in a minority.

As expected, allowing the rebels back into the LDP fold has triggered public criticism. According to a recent Kyodo News survey, nearly 60 percent of the respondents oppose letting the 11 independents back into the party.

This didn’t stop the postal rebels’ quest. Seiko Noda, one of the 11 and a former postal minister, said it was hard being an independent Diet lawmaker.

“I was all on my own,” she said. “Strict rules kept me from participating in the committees I wanted to join or from asking questions in the committees.”

Yasunori Sone, another political science professor at Keio University, pointed out that party subsidies were also a reason for the independents to want back in. Under the Party Donation Law, the lawmakers must be a member of the party as of Jan. 1 to receive an LDP subsidy.

“If you are independent, you cannot receive party subsidies,” Sone said. “If (the independent lawmakers) return to the LDP (by Dec. 31), they will be counted as a member (for 2007) and be given (their share of the money).”

The more people in the party, the more money it will receive. But critics say that is not the main reason the LDP is bringing the rebels back — its ultimate goal is to prevail in next year’s Upper House election.

The upcoming campaign is expected to be a major test of power for both the ruling bloc and the Democratic Party of Japan.

Out of the Upper House’s 242 seats, the LDP holds 111 and New Komeito 24 — barely a majority. The DPJ now holds 82 seats, and critics say the LDP could struggle.

“Naturally, (the LDP) is hoping for the backing of the Lower House lawmakers’ support groups in the Upper House election,” Sone said. “I believe (the LDP) is trying to revive bloc-voting, expecting (the 11 independents’ support groups) to shift once (they) become LDP members again.”

According to recent media reports, even Koizumi, who kicked the rebels out in the first place, has approved their return.

Sone said the way the LDP leaders have handled the matter smacks of opportunism in the eyes of voters.

He stressed that the readmission is not just a party matter. The general public voted for the LDP, entrusting it to carry out a task deemed important — postal privatization.

The return of the 11 cheapens that goal, which was behind last year’s general election, Sone said.

“(The LDP) cannot pretend that last year’s general election did not happen. . . . The only solution is for (the LDP) to re-field its candidates and hold a general election again.”

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