‘Third force’ elements scramble for poll position

Tieups started by Hashimoto now mishmash of platforms


Staff Writer

So far 16 political parties are fielding candidates for the Dec. 16 Lower House election.

While polls say that voters are likely to return to power the nearly 60-year-old Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for most of the postwar period, this year’s election is turning into a contest between the older, larger established groups, like the conservative LDP and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and a variety of newer, smaller rivals like Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) seeking to upend the status quo.

Following are questions and answers on the so-called third political force.

What constitutes the third force and who are its members?

The third force movement refers primarily to Nippon Ishin, which began in Osaka as Osaka Ishin no Kai and continues to remain strongest there.

Founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto in 2010 while he was Osaka governor, the original Nippon Ishin members consisted of two groups.

The first included current Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and local politicians who had been with the LDP for years but were frustrated with the party’s centralized decision-making and the influence of rural members whose priorities were very different from urban Osaka.

The second group was made up primarily of men in their 30s and 40s who ran in last year’s double election for Osaka mayor and governor.

Few had any experience in government prior to running. Most had been salaried workers, legal professionals or linked to management consultancies.

All had come of age after the bubble economy collapsed in the early 1990s, and watched as Osaka’s economy stagnated, unemployment soared and debts piled up from failed public works projects. Amid a general sense of failure, many of Osaka’s best and brightest had fled to Tokyo or overseas.

Is the third force movement primarily an Osaka phenomenon?

No, although media pundits outside of Osaka perceive it as such.

Osaka Ishin no Kai’s success in Osaka, where it controls the prefectural assembly and has a plurality in the municipal assembly, convinced other politicians, including Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura and Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, to launch their own regional groups, although Kawamura’s Genzei Nippon (Tax Reduction Japan) party fundamentally differs from Nippon Ishin on the question of raising taxes.

Inspired by Hashimoto, local-level political forces from Niigata to Ehime to Fukuoka have formed their own Ishin no Kai groups.

There are at least 20 groups nationwide that now have Ishin no Kai as part of their names, though not all are officially recognized by Nippon Ishin. Most are quite small. Some have only a half dozen members at most. But they serve as local support groups for those who plan to run in the Lower House election under the Nippon Ishin banner.

What is the general philosophy of the Ishin no Kai groups?

Freedom from Tokyo. What this means is freedom from a centralized Tokyo bureaucracy that holds the power of the purse, and the power to make decisions on a broad range of local-level issues.

But beyond the usual demands for more local autonomy, common to virtually all parties, Nippon Ishin has taken things a step further by making realization of the regional bloc system a key goal.

More than any other third force party, or the LDP and DPJ, which support the system to varying degrees, Nippon Ishin has aggressively pushed to end Japan’s more than 140-year-old prefectural system and replace it with somewhere between nine and 13 semiautonomous regional blocs, and leave Tokyo only in charge of defense, diplomacy and disaster relief.

What other groups besides Nippon Ishin constitute the main third force movement?

Kawamura’s Genzei Nippon and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party, which has a similar philosophy to Nippon Ishin, could also be counted.

Other small, nontraditional parties founded by former LDP or established party candidates include ex-LDP member Yoichi Masuzoe’s Shinto Kaikaku and ex-LDP member and former Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) leader Shizuka Kamei’s new group, which specifically opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and favors getting out of nuclear power and repealing the consumption tax hike. Kamei plans to tie up with Genzei Nippon.

Like America’s tea party or antiestablishment parties in Europe and elsewhere in Asia, is the third force basically populist and nationalist?

Within the third force, there are fundamentally two groups with two different philosophies.

Nippon Ishin and its nominal allies, including Your Party and Aichi Gov. Omura’s Chukyo Ishin no Kai, are urban-based and enjoy behind-the-scenes support from traditional corporate lobbies that once supported the LDP. Supporters of Nippon Ishin are generally seen by the media as neoconservative and hawkish, especially in foreign policy.

Domestically, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that Nippon Ishin has a corporatist mentality rooted in Reagan/Thatcher economic policies. The party speaks much about self-reliance, the need for government efficiency and the kind of accounting transparency standards and clear rules that corporations face.

There is also a preference for privatization of government services wherever possible, and competition. Nippon Ishin places much less emphasis on social welfare policies.

Before absorbing ex-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s Taiyo no To (The Sunrise Party), Nippon Ishin boasted populist stances, including abandoning nuclear power and pursuing renewable energy, as Hashimoto and younger Nippon Ishin members favored.

That stance has changed, however, reflecting the mindset of the ex-LDP members in its ranks, including Ishihara. Nippon Ishin has backpedaled on the no-nuclear goal, and the public now perceives the party as less of a populist force run by Tokyo outsiders and more as a radical reform force dominated by traditional ultranationalists.

The second group within the third force opposes the TPP, the consumption tax hike and favors getting out of nuclear power. This group has become increasingly centered around Kawamura, although it also includes former Kokumin Shinto member Akiko Kamei’s new Midori no Kaze (Green Wind) party, which is running on an antinuclear platform.

Where does ex-DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, who has been fighting for a third force for years, fit into all of this?

Ozawa’s Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First) party opposes the TPP and tax hike and favors getting out of nuclear power, policies akin to those of Midori no Kaze and Genzei Nippon.

However, Ozawa’s age and reputation have turned off many potential younger voters, who see him not as a viable third force leader but instead somebody very much part of the establishment.

What are the odds of either of the two third force camps actually winning the election?

There is virtually no chance that any single third force party will win more than 240 seats in the 480-seat Lower House.

Most polls as of mid-November indicate the LDP, in combination with New Komeito and perhaps a much smaller and conservative DPJ, will return to power.

How many seats Nippon Ishin might win is the subject of much debate. Pundits guess anywhere between 30 and 80 seats, depending on the candidates and how much money they can raise for their campaigns.

But the real question is whether a coalition of established parties can form a majority government after the election.

If not, the LDP may extend an invitation to either Your Party or Nippon Ishin, which is now run by Ishihara, to form a coalition government.

The other nontraditional parties opposed to the consumption tax increase, the TPP, and in favor of getting out of nuclear power, however, are likely to find themselves in the opposition.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp