Four years after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power, his administration continues to enjoy an unusually high approval ratings of more than 50 percent, and the prime minister’s grip on power remains unrivaled. And as if he still isn’t satisfied, Abe has begun to take steps to solidify the political foundation of his administration, causing new friction among political circles.

On Dec. 22, Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima, who hails from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, complained about the high-handed manner with which the LDP rammed through the controversial bill to legalize casino resorts. Speaking to his close aides, Abe himself did not hide his displeasure with the way Oshima ran the proceedings during the extraordinary Diet session, notably his decision to delay the vote for ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Such an open spat between the prime minister and the Lower House speaker, who is customarily chosen from among senior lawmakers from the party in power, is unheard of.

The friction has spread further to the top brass of Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition. The LDP-Komeito alliance, dating back to 1999, had remained solid even when the two parties were out of power. But Komeito lawmakers were split in the Diet vote on the casino legislation — quite unusual for a party known for the disciplined unity among its members. Both its president, Natsuo Yamaguchi, and its secretary-general, Yoshihisa Inoue, voted against the bill, while former party chief Akihiro Ota voted in favor. Another senior member who voted against the bill cited the strong opposition to the bill within Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization and a solid supporter of the party, and the negative impact that the vote on the casino bill could have on the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election this summer.

True enough, the split between the LDP and Komeito deepened in the metropolitan assembly. In mid-December, a leader of the Komeito caucus in the assembly abruptly announced a break with the LDP — ostensibly over differences between the two parties on proposed cuts to the salaries of assembly members. But the LDP sees Komeito’s break as having been prompted by calls from Soka Gakkai, which criticized the party for maintaining its alliance with the LDP despite the latter’s continuing standoff with popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.

The LDP on its own is short of a majority in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. It controls the assembly by cooperating with Komeito, whose break with the alliance has disrupted the LDP’s balance of power with the governor. The split in the Diet vote on the casino legislation and in the metropolitan assembly has brought the two parties’ relations to a crossroads. Personal ties between LDP and Komeito leaders are not entirely solid. LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai keeps in regular contact with Komeito Central Committee Chairman Yoshio Urushibara, but his ties with his Komeito counterpart Inoue remain shaky. Abe maintains close relations with former Komeito chief Ota, but the current Komeito leadership of Yamaguchi and Inoue are outside the mainstream channel of communications between the two allies.

Making matters even more complicated for Komeito is the LDP’s increasingly close ties with Nippon Ishin no Kai since the last Upper House election. Nippon Ishin members voted for all of the contentious bills submitted by Abe’s government or the LDP in the last Diet session — those for ratifying the TPP, legalizing casinos and amending the pension system.

After its victory in the Upper House race in July, the LDP regained a single-party majority in both chambers of the Diet for the first time in 27 years. This means that Abe can now choose the LDP’s partners in the ruling coalition instead of relying solely on Komeito.

In the late 1970s, the LDP sought temporary alliances with other parties on an issue-by-issue basis. Abe is now believed to be exploring the possibility of teaming up with either Komeito or Nippon Ishin depending on the issue at stake. On Christmas Eve, Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga held what has now become a customary meeting with top Ishin leaders — former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and current Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, which this time may have served as a ceremony for Nippon Ishin’s de facto entry into the ruling coalition.

Senior LDP leaders appear to be looking further ahead — at the prospect of the main opposition force, the Democratic Party, disintegrating and some of its members joining hands with the LDP. Signs of the party’s possible collapse were already visible during the Diet session last fall — the first since Renho took over the party’s leadership. Even though the DP officially declared its opposition to all of the contested bills, all its Lower House members ended up abstaining from the vote on the bills at the plenary session because the party was unable even to adopt a unified position among its lawmakers.

The DP held its own popular opinion survey late last year, in anticipation that Abe might again soon dissolve the Lower House for a snap election. The outcome showed that the party’s performance would range from 140 seats at the most to fewer than 100 in the worst case in the chamber. While the party was forecast to be strong in constituencies in Hokkaido and northeastern Honshu, it was seen as no match against the LDP-led alliance in much of western Japan.

Abe eventually decided not to dissolver the Lower House at the beginning of the year — as had been speculated — both because he determined that the LDP stood to lose seats and because of the prime minister’s tight diplomatic schedule in the early part of 2017, including the Trump inauguration. Suga reportedly told people close to him that the prime minister, as he seeks to survive the turbulent international political developments, wants to maintain his coalition’s stable hold on Diet majority.

Another hidden motive behind postponing the general election is that the party hopes, in the meantime, to maneuver for the DP’s further decline and eventual disintegration — and build a new coalition that incorporates some DP members, according to a senior LDP leader.

One of the scenarios that the LDP is contemplating is a revival of the cooperation that the party had with then-centrist members of the opposition camp — Komeito and the now-defunct Democratic Socialist Party — in the early 1990s. The DSP was primarily backed by right-leaning labor organization Japan Confederation of Labor (Domei), which subsequently merged with the leftist General Council of Trade Unions (Sohyo) to form the present Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo). The divide between the former Sohyo and Domei group unions in Rengo remains strong today. They hold totally divergent views on such issues as restarting idled nuclear power plants.

Opposition remains deep-seated within Rengo toward campaign cooperation among opposition parties — in particular between the DP and the Japanese Communist Party. Rengo President Rikio Kozu, writing in a recent edition of the Bungei Shunju magazine, warned the DP “not to shake hands with the Communist Party.”

Such a message takes on an added significance since LDP Secretary General Nikai has been holding secret talks with Kozu — apparently with the old LDP-Komeito-Democratic Socialist alliance in mind. Kozu’s meeting in late December with Abe at his official residence came as a shock to the DP because it was perceived as an attempt by Abe to pull Rengo away from the opposition leader.

Nikai reckons that there are at least 10 lawmakers in the DP who are potentially willing to leave the party. What Nikai envisages, though, is not to accommodate the defectors in the LDP, but rather encouraging them to form a new political group. His approach to exploring a new framework for an LDP-led coalition may be different from Suga’s, who is using his ties with Nippon Ishin as leverage to shake up Komeito. But both are seeking to build a new political foundation for the LDP-led administration.

A senior LDP leader in charge of election campaigns predicts that the next Lower House election will be held either sometime this fall or at the beginning of 2018. In preparation for an election, 2017 may see the beginning of another wave of realignment of political forces.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. More English articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com .

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