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The Japan Times

January 3, 2004

Reliance on Komeito reflects LDP decline
by Reiji Yoshida
January 3, 2004

Soon after the Nov. 9 general election of the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party of Japan compiled a thick report analyzing the results of all 300 single-seat constituencies.

The main opposition party arrived at the following conclusion: dozens of Liberal Democratic Party candidates would have lost without help from the ruling LDP's coalition partner, New Komeito, which boasts the solid backing of Soka Gakkai, the nation's largest lay Buddhist organization.

The major daily Mainichi Shimbun reached a similar conclusion in its own published simulation. In the election, 81 out of 168 successful LDP candidates in the single-seat electoral districts would have failed to win seats if New Komeito supporters had not cast votes for them, according to the daily.

"We have a certain number of solid votes in each single-seat constituency, like around 20,000 or 30,000. Those votes may have become a critical factor in determining a winner," said Kentaro Koba, secretary general of New Komeito's Upper House caucus.

The outcome of the November election, which saw the DPJ make sharp gains and the LDP barely cling to a majority, gave rise to expectations that a two-party system was in the offing.

But the poll also showed that the LDP, which since its 1955 creation has enjoyed virtually uninterrupted rule, relies more than ever on New Komeito to remain in power.

The increased influence of New Komeito appears to be a key factor as the parties brace for the triennial House of Councilors election this summer, which could determine the fate of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's administration.

Koba reckons New Komeito's relative influence has increased because the LDP and DPJ are in tight competition in a number of constituencies.

This view, shared by many analysts, appears to reflect the changing landscape of politics, a change in which the LDP is in decline.

The LDP has long depended on the solid support of vested interests -- industry organizations such as construction companies, medical associations, agricultural cooperatives and the nationwide network of state-run post offices.

But Koizumi's austere reforms, aimed at restoring the health of the debt-ridden state coffers, have weakened support among these groups, political insiders say.

Kiyoshi Akiyama, secretary general of the LDP's Saitama Prefecture chapter, is one LDP member who keenly felt the impact of such changes.

During the campaign for the Nov. 9 election, Akiyama, while working to generate votes for LDP candidates, no longer asked for support from local business associations -- traditionally the LDP's main vote-organizing machine.

He simply gave up because the reactions of construction firms and doctor groups -- previously two of the most powerful supporters for the LDP -- were particularly negative.

"It has become increasingly difficult to win votes from industry groups," Akiyama said.

As in other parts of the country, construction companies in Saitama have suffered severely from the shrinking budget for public works spending, while doctors were angry over Koizumi's decision to raise the health insurance burden on patients, which would serve as a disincentive for visiting a physician.

"It might have been better to ask for more support from New Komeito, frankly speaking," Akiyama said.

Of the 15 seats up for grabs in the Saitama constituencies, the LDP won seven, while the DPJ grabbed eight. "Without the help of New Komeito, only a few candidates would have been elected," he said.

Reflecting the reduced support from vested interests, some big-name LDP politicians known for their close ties with industry lost their seats in the November poll.

They included Kanezo Muaroka of the Akita No. 3 constituency and Hirohisa Kurihara of the Niigata No. 4 constituency, both champions of expressway construction in rural areas -- another Koizumi reform target.

Hiroyuki Arai of the Fukushima No. 3 constituency, a vocal opponent of Koizumi's plans to privatize the postal services, also failed to be re-elected. Koizumi had called him "a liar" on live TV after Arai kept arguing that the LDP would eventually scrap the prime minister's postal privatization plan.

The LDP has lacked a simple majority in the House of Councilors since 1989, and has been looking to next summer's election as a chance to regain it.

But the prospects for LDP members in the race look bleaker now that New Komeito has asserted that it has fewer incentives to offer a helping hand to struggling LDP candidates.

In Lower House elections, most LDP candidates run with dual candidacy -- registering both in a single-seat constituency and on the party's proportional representation roster. The latter works as a safety net for many LDP candidates who fail to win a seat in their constituencies.

According to Koba, New Komeito benefited by supporting certain LDP candidates in single-seat districts who in turn agreed to have their own supporters cast proportional representation votes for New Komeito in a barter.

But there is no such dual candidacy in Upper House elections. Constituency candidates must run separately from their proportional representation counterparts.

"The bottom line will be, 'What can we gain by supporting LDP members?' " Koba asked. "We owe the LDP nothing. Frankly speaking, I can't think of any reason to cooperate with them right now."

But campaign support is the price New Komeito must pay to stay in the ruling bloc.

Party leaders admit New Komeito has benefited greatly by staying in the bloc, because the LDP-led government has had to accept some of its policies, particularly on social security -- an issue of great concern to its supporters.

New Komeito last month got the LDP to accept its demand that retirement benefits from the public pension scheme never fall below 50 percent of a salaried worker's average wage -- despite the snowballing costs of maintaining the system.

"Campaign cooperation with the LDP worked as a plus" in negotiations over pension reforms, Koba admitted.

Many LDP members are concerned, however, that a heavy reliance on the New Komeito-Soka Gakkai support base will irreversibly weaken the party's own campaign machines. But no immediate alternative to either has presented itself.

Nobutaka Machimura, director general at the LDP's election bureau, said there are "no tricks" -- just daily efforts by each candidate to increase support for the party.

"It is true that New Komeito has made significant contributions (to LDP campaigns) in urban areas," Machimura said. "But we have to garner wide support from various voters. We should not expect New Komeito to help us out."

The LDP also faces competition from the DPJ, which emerged in November as the most powerful opposition party. Observers say the summer Upper House election will be the real test of whether the party can represent a viable alternative to the LDP.

Hidekazu Kawai, professor of politics at Gakushuin University, said the November poll opened the door to another party being in control.

"I think the Upper House election could pave the way for a DPJ-led government," Kawai figured.

Despite its election gains, the DPJ has yet to shrug off doubts about its unity -- its main weak point, which derives from its late-1990s formation as a party merging various forces with different policy backgrounds.

The latest addition to the hodgepodge was Ichiro Ozawa's Liberal Party, which the DPJ absorbed in the runup to the November election.

While the DPJ's image as the main opposition party was boosted by the absorption of the Liberals, Ozawa has been regarded as the most destabilizing factor for the party, given his history of creating -- and then breaking up -- new parties over the past decade.

Ozawa stirred up speculation as to his intentions when he declared in late November that he would not attend the regular DPJ executive meeting even though he was appointed acting president as a symbolic move to promote harmony between former Liberal Party members and the rest of the party.

"If the DPJ cannot take power in the next election, it will break up," said a senior lawmaker in the ruling bloc, adding that the Upper House poll will be a key opportunity to douse the opposition party's bright prospects.

However, Hideo Watanabe, a senior DPJ lawmaker and longtime aide to Ozawa, played that scenario down. The former Liberal Party member worked closely with Ozawa to get the party absorbed by the DPJ in September.

"If this merger ends in failure, my political fortunes will be terminated, and those of Ozawa will be terminated, too," Watanabe said. "We are well aware of that."

But Watanabe, also acting head of the DPJ's election affairs committee, said the DPJ's biggest weakness lies in its local-level campaign organizations, not in internal discord.

Many in the DPJ are junior members from urban areas who have refrained from building up election support organizations, hoping to avoid the vested-interest trappings of the LDP, Watanabe said.

Traditionally, the largest opposition party always gained seats when public criticism rose against the LDP, only to see its strength dwindle later. "Politicians must not depend on the winds of the times. The ABCs for politicians is to build their own electoral support organizations," he said.


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