A tripartite coalition among the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito has become a fait accompli. At a special party convention last weekend, New Komeito adopted a basic policy that prepared the second-largest opposition party for participation in the bipartisan ruling alliance between the LDP and the LP. In a summit meeting Monday with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who is LDP president, the centrist party accepted a request to eventually share power.

What is happening is that New Komeito is changing its political stripes. It is giving up its role as an anti-LDP opposition party to become a governing party. It is unclear, however, exactly what it is trying to achieve as a coalition partner. New Komeito is duty-bound to address this question in language that ordinary people can understand.

Its new plan of action defines the current state of Japanese politics as an “era of coalition government.” The people, it says, do not favor a one-party administration by the LDP, nor do they support at this stage a two-party system in which power alternates between the two largest parties. This perception is probably right: The LDP failed to win a majority in the Lower House election of 1996 and again in the Upper House election of 1998.

However, New Komeito has yet to clearly explain why it has decided to share power with the LDP. It must give a convincing answer, especially since at last November’s inaugural convention, it emphasized its identity as a populist party and pledged to become the “new leading light” of the centrist forces and develop “consensual politics.” It was not clear at that time whether it would team up with the LDP or carry on the “joint struggle” with other opposition parties.

The latest action plan puts a more positive spin on consensual politics as the way to establish “leadership for political stability and reform.” On that basis, it stresses the need to build consensus before, not after, policy planning and formulation. And, in a forthright change, it says: “We have another major option of participating in government as a partner in the coalition administration.”

The impression, however, is that “option” was presented as a foregone conclusion to push the leadership’s coalition plan. New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki told the convention that the party “should share responsibilities as a Cabinet partner.” During the question-and-answer session, however, rank-and-file party members expressed doubts. They seemed uncertain whether the party could maintain its identity.

The coming general election may be another reason why New Komeito is changing gears only eight months after its inauguration. The party reportedly believes that its future is grim under the current election system for the Lower House, which combines single-seat districts and proportional representation. Adding to the sense of crisis is an LDP-LP agreement to cut the number of PR seats by 50.

Another reason given in the action plan is the fiasco of the now defunct Shinshinto, which was formed as a counterweight to the LDP. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, is divided and weakened. Presumably New Komeito finds it difficult to build a viable strategy with the DPJ and other opposition parties.

As a ruling party with Cabinet representation, New Komeito will be in a better position not only to achieve some of its policies and exercise leadership for political reform, but also to improve its electoral chances through revival of the multiseat constituency system and joint electoral campaigning.

The fact remains, however, that a large segment of the public is wondering whether the party is moving in a direction that is good for Japanese politics. The LDP has not essentially changed. If that is true, how could New Komeito, supposedly a born-again party, reach a policy agreement with the LDP? If it is to lead centrist politics, New Komeito should not play second fiddle to LDP politics.

In a nationwide opinion poll taken earlier this month, only 9 percent approved of its intra-Cabinet cooperation with the LDP, and only 13 percent supported extra-Cabinet cooperation. By contrast, 23 percent said New Komeito should remain in the opposition to confront the LDP, and 20 percent replied it should join hands with the LDP only on selected policies. Moreover, many supporters of New Komeito reportedly have reservations about its participation in the LDP government.

New Komeito is staking its future on participation in the conservative coalition. The crucial question is whether the party will be able to win wider public trust through partnership with the LDP.

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