The once dominant Liberal Democratic Party is said to be trying to re-establish its identity as a genuine conservative force, but the LDP leadership appears to be doing nothing more than working desperately to maintain the status quo.

On the very day that Ichiro Ozawa, the all powerful secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, was questioned by Tokyo district prosecutors in connection with the suspected falsification of political fund reports, LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki pledged that he would personally take the lead in investigating scandals involving the DPJ and the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Speaking to LDP local chapter heads, Tanigaki said public opinion has now turned so much against the DPJ that Ozawa could no longer resist prosecutorial efforts to question him. Yet, his words sounded hollow to some; one LDP leader lamented that the series of blunders committed by the DPJ had not shunted more support over to the LDP.

There is no denying that the public approval rating of the Hatoyama administration has fallen dramatically because of money and politics, including Hatoyama’s receipt of huge sums of money from his mother and allegations that Ozawa’s funds management body violated the Political Funds Control Law.

An opinion poll taken by Kyodo News on Jan. 17-18 showed that 44.1 percent “disapproved” of the Hatoyama government, up 11 percentage points from the previous survey and ahead of the 41.5 percent “approval” rate for the first time.

This should be a golden opportunity for the LDP to regain support, but that has not happened. The party’s flagging spirit is best symbolized by the halfhearted manner in which Tanigaki faced both the LDP party convention Jan. 24 and his one-on-one debate with Hatoyama three days earlier. Not all blame belongs to Tanigaki, though, as doubts have been cast about the competence of the most important figure in the party hierarchy, Secretary General Tadamori Oshima.

Oshima is said to oppose the idea of a 29-year-old female municipal assembly member from Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, running in the Upper House election on the LDP ticket this summer. He thinks she is too young and inexperienced, but has not suggested an alternative. Much hope has been placed in Yuri Fujikawa, reputed to be “too beautiful a woman to sit in the municipal assembly,” as someone who can lead the uphill battle that the LDP will likely face. Oshima’s lukewarm attitude toward her has caused much distrust of him.

Oshima, who has not built a broad base of intraparty support, is also criticized for relying on party elders like Mikio Aoki, who heads the LDP Upper House caucus, and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. The LDP leadership has given the go-ahead to Aoki’s re-election bid at age 75. Elderly members of the party find it easy to deal with the current LDP leadership, which acts like their “yes man.”

Nobutaka Machimura, a former foreign minister who heads the LDP’s largest factional group, has also disappointed members of his faction. Last summer he failed to get elected to the Lower House in his own constituency, yet managed to win a seat based on proportional representation votes. Though Chiyomi Kobayashi of the DPJ, the woman who defeated him in his constituency, may resign over violations of the Public Offices Election Law, Machimura shows a reluctance to run in a by-election to replace her, citing “unfavorable winds” for the LDP.

Meanwhile, Toranosuke Katayama, a former LDP Upper House secretary general who failed in his bid to retain his seat in the 2007 Upper House election, has not responded positively to an offer to run for the constituency seat held by Upper House President Satsuki Eda of the DPJ. Instead, Katayama insists on running as a proportional representation candidate.

Disappointed with the LDP’s failure to cash in on the DPJ’s declining popularity, young and mid-career LDP members are considering a possible “third pole.” Many voters who are fed up with the LDP and the DPJ may cast ballots for “Minna no To (Party of All),” headed by Yoshimi Watanabe. A recent opinion survey showed support for the party climbing from 3 percent to nearly 5 percent.

On the day Aoki was given a green light to run on the LDP party ticket, five LDP lawmakers formed a so-called policy study group named “Nozomi (Hope).” This group is seen as a “flying column” of former Trade and Industry Minister Takeo Hiranuma, a staunch conservative who was thrown out of the LDP in 2005 for opposing postal service privatization.

It is conceivable, says an LDP source, that Hiranuma will use the policy study group as an “adhesive” for him and Minna no To members, whose opinions differ from his on postal privatization.

If Hiranuma gets serious about a political realignment and calls upon conservative DPJ and LDP members to unite, former Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe could enter the limelight by taking the initiative in helping to create a new party. Should that happen, a large number of LDP lawmakers would be harvested.

At last month’s party convention, the LDP adopted a new platform for rebuilding Japan based on its long historical and cultural heritage. The party is going through a painful process of re-establishing its own identity, and the long established name of the Liberal Democratic Party is starting to look like a candle in the wind.

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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