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The Japanese Communist Party, although still a minor factor in either house of the Diet, is gaining popularity among voters as its membership grows again and as an increasing number of people watch the Web sites of party chairman Kazuo Shii. This worries other political parties, since a general election is due no later than September.

One of the principal factors behind the surge in the JCP’s popularity has been its efforts to help irregularly employed workers who have recently been fired or refused contract renewals by corporations whose balance sheets have deteriorated fast due to the global financial crisis.

In December, Shii spent all of the time allocated to him in a Lower House Budget Committee meeting to drive home to Prime Minister Taro Aso and other members of his Cabinet the miserable plight of displaced workers.

This was followed by his direct appeal to top executives of two automakers — Toyota Motor Corp. and Isuzu Motors Ltd. — not to dismiss any more workers, and the first ever meeting between the JCP head and the all-powerful Japan Business Federation. Many were impressed with the rising influence of Shii, as Toyota Senior Managing Director Mamoru Furuhashi visited the party’s headquarters, bowing deeply and shaking hands with the party chairman.

Although party membership had dwindled from the peak of 500,000 in 2000 to 400,000, it has risen by 15,000 since September 2007. It has been pointed out that the party has eased qualifications for membership in an attempt to lure new members. About 20 percent of new members are under 30. The number of people who have visited Shii’s Web sites has neared 400,000.

The Communists hold only seven of 242 seats in the Upper House and nine of the 480 in the Lower House. Nevertheless, its rising popularity may have some impact on those who are not keen on voting for either the ruling Liberal Democratic Party or the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Since Shii assumed the top party post in 2000, the party has lost or failed to gain seats in five successive national elections. Before handpicking Shii, his predecessor, Tetsuzo Fuwa, had pursued liberal and flexible policy lines, which eventually led to the revision of the party charter to recognize the position of the Emperor and the existence of the Self-Defense Forces. This change from dogmatism to realism helped the Communists win new seats in the 1998 Upper House election.

After that, however, the Japanese political landscape became dominated by the two major parties, and every seat lost by the ruling LDP became a seat gained by the opposition DPJ, with voters losing interest in the Communists and other minor political groups.

Another big blow hit the JCP when large sums of election deposit money were confiscated by the government. Under prevailing election laws, a candidate for Lower House in a single-seat constituency is required to make a deposit of ¥6 million, which is confiscated unless he or she garners at least 10 percent of all valid votes cast in that constituency.

In the 2005 Lower House election, the party won nine seats under the proportionate representation system, but failed to gain a single seat in any of the 300 single-seat constituencies, and had 223 deposits confiscated. This led the party to abandon its long-standing policy of putting up a candidate in every constituency in the general election. There also came a cry from the party rank and file to reverse the policy of refusing to receive election grant-in-aid from the government.

Ironically, this change of strategy helped the DPJ defeat the LDP in a number of constituencies where the Communists decided not to contest. In those areas, Communist supporters were free to vote for whomever they wished. The result was that, by and large, they voted for the DPJ candidate rather than for the LDP, boosting the number of the seats won by the opposition and dealing a blow to the coalition of the LDP and Komeito. For that reason, DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa is said to have phoned ex-JCP chairman Fuwa to thank him.

Depending on the results of the next general election, there is a chance the JCP will have a swing vote. In that event, the Communists will almost certainly vote for the DPJ’s Ozawa and it it is expected that the JCP will cooperate with the new government case by case. But it is highly unlikely that the JCP will agree to form a coalition with the DPJ, because the relationship between the DPJ and the JCP is not that amicable.

The Communists are intent on expanding their sphere of influence by winning more seats in the upcoming general election. For that purpose, they plan to contest in more constituencies than had been planned before. On the other hand, the DPJ is aiming to win a majority in the Lower House on its own so that its leader will be named the prime minister without any help from the JCP.

Despite these factors, the LDP is quite fearful of the possibility of a new coalition being formed between the DPJ and the JCP. This has led some ranking LDP officials to contemplate relaxing the rules on confiscating election deposit money, which would make it easier for the JCP to put up its candidates in more constituencies, which in turn would split the votes among the opposition parties to the detriment of the DPJ.

This idea is not well received by Komeito, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, which fears an intensification of the fight between Komeito and the Communists in local elections.

According to various opinion polls conducted by newspapers and TV networks, the JCP is still a small force supported by only between 2 and 3 percent of the public. Nevertheless, the other political parties cannot afford to be indifferent to how the Communists will perform in the coming general election.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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