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Nippon Ishin ponders its fate after brutal defeat in Lower House election

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Five years after Nippon Ishin no Kai first appeared on the national stage with promises of changing the country through an Osaka-based revolution, the party’s future is in doubt following a crushing defeat in the Oct. 22 Lower House election.

The party that captured 54 seats in the December 2012 election, including 12 in Osaka, managed to win just 11 seats nationwide this time, with only three in its home base of Osaka Prefecture and two proportional seats in the Kinki bloc. Nippon Ishin leader and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui has hinted he might resign if a successor can be found.

“If party leaders call a conference and someone decides to run for leadership, I’d welcome that,” Matsui said last week. “I’ll make a decision about my own position at that time.”

But the issue of Nippon Ishin’s leadership is creating dissent between younger members who want change, and some veterans — including co-founder and former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.

An angry exchange of tweets last week between Lower House member Hodaka Maruyama, 33, who criticized Nippon Ishin for not holding a leadership election, and Hashimoto, who said the party would be finished without Matsui, highlighted the internal frustrations and concern about the party’s viability.

While there has also been speculation in the media that Nippon Ishin might merge with another party, Matsui has ruled out such a move.

This was the first Lower House election for Nippon Ishin without the charismatic Hashimoto, who retired from politics in 2015. There had been concerns within the party well before the ballots were cast as to how well it would do, especially in Osaka, without Hashimoto backing it. On Friday, he cut all formal ties with the party he helped create.

But Hashimoto’s exit wasn’t the only issue that dented the party’s hopes — it had also developed an image that it had few true independent policies of its own.

Dubbed the de facto “Osaka faction” of the Liberal Democratic Party by local opposition leaders for its similar views with the LDP and the close relationship Matsui has with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Nippon Ishin struggled to distinguish itself from the ruling party and prove to voters elsewhere it was something more than a lobbying arm of Osaka interests, especially the business community that favors its urban-friendly, neoliberal economic and anti-union policies.

Matsui also angered some members of his party when he agreed to team up and campaign on behalf of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and her Kibo no To (Party of Hope). In late September, Matsui, Koike and Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura met in Osaka and agreed to cooperate on a few general election themes. Koike promised not to run Kibo no To candidates in Osaka and Matsui refrained from running Nippon Ishin candidates in Tokyo.

But the deal quickly fell apart after Omura backed out following a disagreement with Koike over his role in her new party, ending speculation that politicians loyal to the three leaders would become a formidable opposition bloc in the post-election Diet.

“I wanted to continue our cooperation but Omura backed out,” Matsui said after the election.

The alliance surprised many because Matsui had long been wary of Koike’s ability to govern. The Tokyo governor, who hails from neighboring Hyogo Prefecture and began her political career there, is also widely distrusted in Kansai’s political and corporate worlds as a politician who abandons allies and parties when things get tough. Over the past quarter century, Koike has been a member of about a half dozen national political parties, beginning her career opposing the LDP and then joining it before quitting to form Kibo no To, which she has said she wants to continue to lead.

Of the 75 single and proportional representation seats in Kansai’s six prefectures — Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Hyogo and Wakayama — Kibo no To won only five (two single district and three proportional). Among those who lost was Sumio Mabuchi, a former Democratic Party stalwart from Nara who joined Kibo no To but lost to an LDP candidate.

The LDP won 42 of the 75 seats, with coalition partner Komeito taking 10 (the LDP did not challenge Komeito for single-district seats). The more liberal Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, whose members mainly hail from the Democratic Party, which has traditionally done poorly in Kansai, did better than expected, winning five proportional representation seats and one single seat in Kansai, with veteran Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the CDP’s policy research council chair, re-elected in Osaka.

Tsujimoto is expected to play a highly influential role in determining to what extent the CDP will cooperate with other parties in the Diet, including the Japanese Communist Party and possibly even Komeito, on issues where they are in general agreement.

“We’re the No. 1 opposition party now, but we have fewer seats than the old Democratic Party,” she said following her victory. “So the issue now is whether we can tie up with other parties to influence Diet operations.”

The party has some reason to hope its fortunes in Kansai will improve.

Despite being formed less than three weeks before the election, the CDP candidates won nearly 16 percent of the proportional vote in the Kinki bloc, third behind the LDP’s 30 percent and Nippon Ishin’s 18 percent, which fell from 26 percent in the 2014 election.

As for Nippon Ishin, much of its bargaining power with the LDP, Komeito and their local chapters over local issues has likely diminished.

The entire Nippon Ishin movement sprang from efforts in Osaka to merge the city and prefecture, a plan that was rejected in a referendum in 2015. Matsui had hoped to hold another referendum on the plan in autumn 2018. But with opposition to the merger in the local chapters of the LDP and Komeito certain to grow stronger, Nippon Ishin insiders now doubt whether that timetable can be kept or whether the final proposal will truly reflect what Nippon Ishin wanted.

In addition, while it’s assumed in Osaka that Nippon Ishin will support Abe and the LDP if and when the Diet votes on constitutional revision, the party’s reduced status may mean less influence behind the scenes over how the revised articles should be worded, especially Article 9.

Nippon Ishin agrees Article 9 needs to be revised, but is wary of being drawn into U.S.-led conflicts in distant parts of the world.

“The Abe government is too close to the U.S. position on diplomatic issues, and constitutional revision (of the kind the LDP is proposing) that allows the Self-Defense Forces to be dispatched to the Strait of Hormuz goes too far,” Matsui said before the election. “We want revisions to this proposal.”

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.