With a snap general election set for Sept. 11, the conflict within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party over postal-service privatization has entered a new stage with the formation of a new party led by antireform old guards. The new group is led by Mr. Tamisuke Watanuki, former Lower House speaker, and Mr. Shizuka Kamei, former LDP policy chief, who were both leading figures among the intraparty forces opposed to postal privatization.
The future for the new party, Kokumin Shinto, won’t be bright, though, if it fails to present something more positive than just a negative reaction to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s push for the reform of Japan Post. The conflict was dramatized in plenary sessions of both houses of the Diet.
After the privatization bills passed the Lower House on July 5 with a margin of only five votes, they were voted down in the Upper House’s plenary session on Aug. 8 by 17 votes. Fifty-one LDP Lower House members rebelled against their party’s official position: 37 who voted against the bills and 14 who were absent or abstained from voting. The latter group of LDP members have been allowed to run in the election on the LDP ticket on the condition that they vote for the privatization bills next time.
Kokumin Shinto originally started with five Diet members, the minimum number required to gain legal recognition as a political party. Mr. Watanuki will serve as party representative and Mr. Hisaoki Kamei, former director general of the National Land Agency, as secretary general. Other founding members of the new party (besides Mr. Shizuka Kamei) are Mr. Kensei Hasegawa, an Upper House LDP member and former postal-service bureaucrat, and Mr. Hideaki Tamura, an Upper House member of the Democratic Party of Japan and former high-ranking officer of the Air Self-Defense Force.
The party was hastily organized mainly by LDP members to improve their chances of surviving the expected onslaught by Mr. Koizumi against LDP opponents of the postal privatization bills. The prime minister is sending one “assassin” after another — popular and powerful candidates picked by him or the LDP leadership — to electoral districts to run against privatization opponents and prevent their re-election.
Under the single seat/proportional representation system for Lower House elections, candidates belonging to a legally recognized party have an advantage over independent candidates. That is why Mr. Watanuki and others formed Kokumin Shinto. Since the privatization opponents cannot receive official endorsement from the LDP, they must run either as independents or on the ticket of a different party.
Under the system, independents cannot appear in a campaign broadcast, and the posting and distribution of their posters and campaign flyers is restricted. And they cannot run in the proportional representation category. By contrast, party candidates can run in a single-seat district and the proportional representation category. If, say, they fail to be elected in a single-seat district, they could still be elected in the proportional representation category.
The current electoral system enables a party’s leadership to exercise strong control over candidates. Most of the 37 LDP Lower House members who voted against the postal privatization bills have chosen to run as independent candidates rather than join the new party. Among them are former LDP Executive Council chief Mitsuo Horiuchi, former Economic and Industry Minister Takeo Hiranuma, and former Posts and Telecommunications Minister Seiko Noda, all of whom were central figures within the antiprivatization forces, along with Mr. Watanuki and Mr. Shizuka Kamei.
Even though they do not receive the official endorsement of the LDP leadership, they can hope to receive support from LDP local organizations that do not necessarily follow instructions from party headquarters. Moreover, they may want to avoid a sharp confrontation with the party leadership and to return to the party’s fold after the election. For now, they plan to appeal to voters who oppose Mr. Koizumi’s high-handed style of leadership and his latest tactic of making postal-service privatization the only election issue.
This is how Kokumin Shinto hopes to prevent the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito from gaining a majority in the Lower House. It will also try to grab a swing vote for electing the next prime minister in the special Diet session after the election.
Obsession with a single issue, however, could doom the new party. Voters are concerned with many issues, including the overall future of Japan, relations with neighboring countries, more efficient government and the graying of the population, an issue that includes pensions and medical care.
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