A nearly unbroken line of Liberal Democratic Party politicians has headed the government since the party’s 1955 formation. This dominance, however, was shaken by the stunning victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in the July 2007 House of Councilors election. In this reshaped political landscape, the two Diet chambers are controlled by different camps.

Despite DPJ claims that it aims to wrest control from the LDP in the next Lower House election, the fact is that political power is a complex phenomenon with many moving parts. Speculation lingers that further realignments of the parties, which have undergone a series of regroupings in the past two decades, await.

Following is an overview of the parties currently represented in the Diet:

What is the current balance of power among the parties?

The LDP and coalition partner New Komeito enjoy a commanding majority in the 480-seat Lower House. The LDP’s 304 seats combined with New Komeito’s 31 dwarf the DPJ-led opposition camp.

The DPJ has only 113 seats, followed by the Japanese Communist Party with nine, the Social Democratic Party with seven and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) with six. There are nine independents in the chamber.

This balance of power reflects the outcome of the last general election, held in September 2005, when the LDP scored a sweeping victory under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the party president at the time.

This advantage ended, however, when the LDP-New Komeito coalition was drubbed in the July 2007 Upper House election. When the dust settled, the coalition had lost control of the upper chamber to the opposition parties.

A parliamentary alliance comprising members of the DPJ, Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), Shinto Nippon (another minor party) as well as some independents holds 120 out of the 242 seats in the Upper House, followed by the LDP’s 84 and New Komeito’s 21. The JCP has seven seats and the SDP five. The other five seats are held by independents.

Why have smaller parties like Kokumin Shinto and independents joined hands with the DPJ in the Upper House?

Small parties and independents rely on an alliance with a major party to have a substantial presence in Diet proceedings. Proposing a bill not related to budgetary matters requires at least 20 members in the Lower House or 10 in the Upper House. For budget-related bills, the numbers are at least 50 members in the lower chamber or 20 in the upper. The more members a party or parliamentary alliance has, the longer time it is given in the Diet committee sessions.

The DPJ, for its part, is short of an Upper House majority and thus eager to gather as many lawmakers under its umbrella as it can.

How long will this situation last?

For a while, at least.

The next Lower House election must be held by September 2009, when the four-year terms of the current members end. The prime minister can dissolve the Lower House for a snap election any time, but with public approval ratings for Yasuo Fukuda’s Cabinet running low — at 35.6 percent according to a Kyodo News poll last month — now would not appear to be the time to risk losing more ground.

The next triennial Upper House election is scheduled for 2010, when half of the chamber’s 242 seats will be up for grabs. Upper House members serve six-year terms and the chamber cannot be dissolved.

Hasn’t the LDP lost its majority in the Upper House before?

The LDP has not had a sole Upper House majority since 1989, when it suffered a crushing defeat following the introduction of the unpopular consumption tax and was caught up in the Recruit stock-for-favors scandal.

But as long as it holds a Lower House majority, it holds the reins of power. The upper chamber must bow to the lower in the selection of prime minister and deliberations over the budget. Through coalitions and by cooperating with the opposition camp, the LDP has also managed to keep control of the Upper House for much of the period.

Why has the LDP been in power nearly half a century?

Political analyst Rei Shiratori argues that until the early 1990s, a change of government was thought virtually impossible as there was a clear ideological divide between the ruling LDP and the largest opposition force, the Social Democratic Party of Japan, predecessor of the SDP.

The end of the Cold War and the weakening of the Socialists paved the way for a change in the political landscape. For nearly 15 years, parties have been forming, merging and disbanding in what Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan, calls a period of “reshuffling.”

The LDP fell from power for a brief period between 1993 and 1994 but quickly recovered, first through a surprise coalition with the Socialists, and has since remained on top, partly for lack of a serious challenger.

What form has this “reshuffling” taken?

In 1993, Ichiro Ozawa, former secretary general of the LDP, bolted from the party with fellow lawmakers, leading the LDP to temporarily fall from power. Ozawa, currently DPJ chief, has since been a key player in the political realignment, creating and then disbanding a series of parties.

Also in 1993, another group of lawmakers defected from the LDP and created New Party Sakigake, whose members included current DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama; education minister Kisaburo Tokai; Susumu Yanase, current DPJ Diet affairs chief of the Upper House caucus; and Hiroyuki Sonoda, who returned to the LDP in 1999. Naoto Kan, currently the DPJ’s deputy chief, also joined Sakigake in 1994.

In 1996, Kan and Hatoyama quit Sakigake and established the DPJ, which also included many SDP lawmakers. Two years later, the DPJ expanded further to group together smaller forces that had left Shinshinto, a major opposition force that had been created at Ozawa’s initiative in 1994. The new members included many former LDP veterans, including Tsutomu Hata and Kozo Watanabe — now both top advisers of the DPJ.

The party achieved its current makeup in 2003, when Ozawa’s Liberal Party — formed in the wake of Shinshinto’s dissolution — joined the DPJ.

Kenji Yamaoka, current Diet affairs chief of the DPJ, is a former Liberal Party member who joined the DPJ along with Ozawa.

Some Liberal Party members meanwhile returned to the LDP fold, including Toshihiro Nikai, current chairman of the LDP’s General Council, and former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.

The DPJ thus incorporates lawmakers from a wide spectrum of political backgrounds — one reason the party often finds it hard to achieve consensus on sensitive policy issues like amending the Constitution. Critics also point out that some DPJ lawmakers are more conservative than their LDP counterparts on some issues.

Could the DPJ take charge anytime soon?

It is probably too soon to tell. Public support for the LDP-led ruling alliance remains low under Fukuda, raising the possibility that the DPJ, if the situation remains constant, could boost its Lower House seats in a general election.

But critics charge that the DPJ is not ready to hold power. Ozawa himself admitted in a news conference in November — when he offered to resign as DPJ chief after he discussed a “grand coalition” with the LDP in talks with Fukuda — that he had doubts about the DPJ’s ability to rule and that it would be difficult for the party to take power in the next Lower House election.

Although the idea was roundly rejected by DPJ leaders in November, talk of a grand coalition has not completely died away, fueling speculation of further political realignment.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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