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Fresh off a surprise showing in Sunday’s Lower House election, in which they won 41 seats to become the third-largest party in the Diet, Nippon Ishin no Kai is plotting its future.

But while the Osaka-based Nippon Ishin is now in a stronger position to play a more influential role in the Diet, its desire to brand itself as an independent non-establishment party makes its route to joining the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition extremely difficult.

Instead, experts say it’s more likely that Nippon Ishin will remain official outsiders but mostly align with the ruling coalition’s policies — especially on national security and defense issues — while opposing measures they believe are not in their interests.

Nippon Ishin went into Sunday’s vote with party leaders expecting an increase from the 11 seats they held before the election. While they’re happy with the better-than-expected 41 seats, Ichiro Matsui, Nippon Ishin’s leader and Osaka’s mayor, said Monday that he didn’t consider the result a victory.

“We ran 96 candidates and most of them lost. The voters decided that they trusted the administration of Prime Minister (Fumio) Kishida and the ruling coalition, so we see the election as one we didn’t win,” Matsui said on a local TV Asahi program.

As to why this election produced unprecedented national results for a party that had long been seen as minor and Osaka-focused, experts cite two basic reasons. The first was that many voters didn’t like either the ruling coalition or the opposition, led by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and wanted an alternative.

Nippon Ishin no Kai Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba (left) speaks to a citizen in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, on Monday morning. | KYODO
Nippon Ishin no Kai Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba (left) speaks to a citizen in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, on Monday morning. | KYODO

“Nippon Ishin may have successfully positioned itself as a viable or ‘realistic’ centrist alternative to the LDP on the right and the CDP-Japanese Communist Party on the left, leaving aside the question of whether they are, in fact, centrist,” said Kenneth Mori McElwain, a professor of political institutions and public opinion at the University of Tokyo.

The party, formed in Osaka about a decade ago, has long been seen nationally as a local organization with local interests. Sunday’s election showed once again that Nippon Ishin remains strongest in that part of the country. It won 16 district seats, including all 15 Osaka electoral districts in which it competed, plus one district in neighboring Hyogo Prefecture.

While many Osaka-district LDP candidates who lost their seats were the so-called children of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and had only served three terms or less under Abe, Nippon Ishin’s biggest victories came against LDP and CDP veterans.

Deputy LDP Secretary-General Akira Sato, a five-term representative of Osaka’s No. 2 district, lost to Nippon Ishin newcomer Tadashi Morishima. In the Osaka No. 4 district, Yasuhide Nakayama — former state minister of defense — lost his seat to Nippon Ishin’s Teruo Minobe.

In bad news for the CDP, which suffered heavy losses Sunday, seven-term party stalwart Kiyomi Tsujimoto lost her seat to Nippon Ishin newcomer Taku Ikeshita.

Kensuke Takayasu, a political scientist at Seikei University’s faculty of law, suggested that wider national television exposure for Nippon Ishin co-founder Toru Hashimoto, former Osaka governor and former Osaka mayor, played a role — though minor — in helping the party position itself more successfully in the public mind.

“The national media used Hashimoto as a commentator. He has his ideological position and political position of supporting Nippon Ishin,” Takayasu said.

Nippon Ishin no Kai leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui leaves a news conference at an Osaka hotel on Sunday night. | KYODO
Nippon Ishin no Kai leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui leaves a news conference at an Osaka hotel on Sunday night. | KYODO

In the proportional representation race, Nippon Ishin picked up 25 seats, including 10 from the Kinki (the official name of the more general Kansai area) district. The party won three seats in the Minami Kanto bloc, two each in the Tokyo, Kita Kanto, Tokai and Kyushu blocs and one seat each in the Tohoku, Hokuriku, Chugoku and Shikoku blocs. Only in Hokkaido did Nippon Ishin fail to secure any seats.

Now that the election is over, Nippon Ishin’s challenge is how to exercise its increased power in the Diet. While Nobuyuki Baba, the party’s secretary-general, suggested prior to the election that the party might consider joining the ruling coalition, Matsui warned he would dissolve the party before allowing that, and experts say it would be difficult.

Nippon Ishin will not become part of the coalition government. They will try to appeal to voters by saying they are neutral — the party that is with the people, not the vested interests. However, they won’t block government-backed legislation in the Diet, even if they criticize it,” Takayasu said.

McElwain added that as Nippon Ishin has long positioned itself as an outsider party — despite many overlapping policy goals with the LDP and Komeito — it is likely to keep a certain distance from the ruling coalition.

“I suspect that Nippon Ishin will mostly engage in out-of-coalition coordination instead of a formal partnership,” he said.

It also appears unlikely that the LDP would ever replace Komeito with Nippon Ishin, which works with Komeito in the Osaka municipal and prefectural assemblies despite policy differences over many national issues related to defense and diplomacy. Takayasu said that at election time, Komeito’s votes in tight district races nationwide are very important for LDP candidates backed by Komeito, whose votes can help beat traditional opposition parties like the CDP and JCP.

“Thus, there’s no way that the LDP can detach itself from Komeito in terms of electoral politics,” he said.

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