New Komeito tactics alarm LDP

By Yoshio Okubo
Published December 10th 2003 in Daily Yomiuri

A little more than a month has passed since the House of Representatives general election, but the election is still a hot topic in Nagatacho, the nation's political nerve center in Tokyo.

An article in the Dec. 7 issue of Shimbun Akahata, the organ of the Japanese Communist Party, went as follows:

"The single-seat electoral system combined with proportional representation contests benefited the two major parties, as well as a smaller party, New Komeito, which was supported by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai."

The article also said: "The efforts of New Komeito to win votes in the proportional representation races could teach us a lesson."

These remarks are part of the JCP's report presented to the 10th meeting of the party's Central Committee by Chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa last week, titled "Problems Regarding the Last General Election."

The JCP and New Komeito are on very bad terms, and the newspapers of both parties frequently snipe at each other.

It is unusual for the JCP to give such a high rating to its archrival's election tactics, while at the same time criticizing aspects of New Komeito's campaign.

Behind this is a strong sense of crisis in the JCP. The party suffered a major setback in the last general election. Its strength was cut in half in the lower house.

New Komeito's showing in spite of the trend in favor of a two-party system was attributable to the party's success in obtaining support from eligible voters who usually back the Liberal Democratic Party in the proportional representation contests.

In the general election, New Komeito strengthened its partnership with the LDP significantly.

One New Komeito candidate in Osaka went so far as to include a photo of himself alongside LDP leaders in his campaign poster.

All over the country, New Komeito called for LDP candidates running in single-seat constituencies to ask voters to cast ballots for New Komeito candidates in proportional representation races, in return for New Komeito's backing of LDP candidates in single-seat electoral district races.

One speech by an LDP candidate running in a single-seat constituency turned into a gathering that allowed New Komeito officials to address the audience.

Copies of the LDP candidate's campaign booklet and New Komeito's manifesto election pledges were reportedly handed out to people listening to the speeches.

Given that minor and medium-sized political parties are bound to be at a disadvantage in single-seat constituency races, the only way they can survive in a lower house election under the current formula hinges on how they fare in the proportional representation category.

In the general election, New Komeito adopted the strategy of securing support from the LDP in the proportional representation races in exchange for votes of Soka Gakkai members--totaling 20,000 to 30,000 per single-seat electoral district--for single-seat LDP candidates.

The result was that New Komeito increased its lower house strength significantly.

After the election, however, the LDP leadership felt uneasy over the fact that the LDP and New Komeito in the lower house campaigns were effectively fused.

What would happen if the number of LDP members in single-seat constituency contests that need New Komeito backing increased?

The result may be that the LDP will have to pay more consideration to the interests of New Komeito in steering Diet business and key policy affairs in order to keep New Komeito's cooperation in the future.

In the election, some single-seat LDP candidates had no qualms about calling for voters to support New Komeito in the proportional representation category, circumstances quite anomalous in light of the need for the LDP to maintain party unity.

On the basis of this, Secretary General Shinzo Abe and other LDP leaders have embarked on a plan to reduce the party's dependency on New Komeito in the next general election.

The first decision in line with this plan is that in the selection of candidates for the next lower house election, those aged 73 or older who were unsuccessful in single-seat contests in the last election will not be premitted to run in the next election on the LDP ticket.

It has long been pointed out that many older LDP members, even if defeated in an election, tend to refuse to be replaced by newcomers, so that young, competent hopefuls join Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) instead.

To rectify the situation, Abe and other LDP leaders are out to establish a party rule to encourage generational rejuvenation among party members to recruit young candidates.

New Komeito, for its part, is poised to further strengthen the LDP-New Komeito cooperation in the House of Councillors election next summer by obtaining more support from voters leaning toward the LDP.

New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki, in a meeting of the party's prefectural chapter officials from across the country on Saturday, announced that New Komeito will pursue victories in the next upper house race in all electoral districts where it fields candidates, as well as garnering 10 million ballots or more in the proportional representation races.

If New Komeito intensifies its pressure for the LDP to throw its support behind the party in the proportional representation contests in the coming upper house election, anti-New Komeito sentiments may grow among LDP members to the extent of jeopardizing the ruling coalition.

In fact, complaints concerning the lower house election campaign have been filed by LDP local chapters with the party headquarters over "excesses in New Komeito requests for our cooperation."

Whether current relations between the LDP and New Komeito change is the key to the future of the nation's political landscape.

Also noteworthy are moves by the JCP, as indicated by Fuwa's remarks.

Should JCP adopt a strategy modeled after New Komeito in future lower house elections, the JCP--on the strength of pro-JCP voters, who number 10,000 to 20,000 per single-seat electoral district--might ask Minshuto to support the JCP in proportional representation races.

What Fuwa really intended when making reference to New Komito's election tactics as "a good lesson" for the JCP is of interest.

Okubo is political news editor of The Yomiuri Shimbun.