Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set in motion his strategy to gain control of the Upper House--and pave the way to achieve his longtime goal of revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
But his plan could backfire if two key players--the Japan Restoration Party and ruling coalition partner New Komeito--decide to place priority on their own interests and identities.
Abe and senior members of his Liberal Democratic Party are wooing the Japan Restoration Party, hoping to drive a wedge in the opposition camp and ensure victory for the ruling coalition in the Upper House election this summer.
Although officials of the two parties stressed that the discussions have been mainly about economic policy issues, insiders say Abe and other nationalist politicians of the two parties also have constitutional revisions in mind.
“The Abe administration will tie up with the Japan Restoration Party after the Upper House election and tackle the revision, which nobody has been able to do in the postwar years,” one of Abe’s aides said.
The prime minister met with Toru Hashimoto, the Osaka mayor who doubles as acting leader of the Japan Restoration Party, and Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, who is also party secretary-general, in Osaka on Jan. 11. Abe sought their requests for his new government at the meeting.
“Tokyo and Osaka are engines for Japan’s economic growth,” Abe told the meeting, while taking notes.
In response, Hashimoto called for “sweeping structural reform.”
About three hours before the meeting, Abe told reporters in Tokyo that he would ask Hashimoto and Matsui for their cooperation to expeditiously pass the supplementary budget for the current fiscal year.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, one of Abe’s close allies, tried to dismiss the strategic significance of the meeting in Osaka.
“We will seek cooperation from any party in implementing our policy measures,” Suga told a news conference later that day.
However, it is clear that the LDP views the Japan Restoration Party as crucial in preventing the opposition parties from forming a united front as the Upper House election nears.
The LDP returned to power after winning a landslide in the Dec. 16 Lower House election.
But the percentage of votes it garnered in proportional representation districts was only 27.6 percent, a minor improvement on the 26.7 percent it gained when it was defeated in the previous Lower House election in 2009. Voters choose parties, not candidates, in proportional representation districts.
The LDP won by a big margin in the 480-member Lower House election because so many parties fielded candidates in single-seat constituencies, thereby diluting the vote.
The party’s chances of winning the Upper House election will dwindle if the opposition parties coordinate their candidates to prevent such overlap in constituencies.
The ruling coalition currently holds 102 of the 242 Upper House seats.
Talks of a possible alliance between the LDP and the Japan Restoration Party were held in Tokyo in April last year, when Matsui approached Abe and Suga and suggested they work together.
“Please change Japan by taking advantage of our strength,” Matsui told them. “Why don’t we join together?”
After the meeting, Suga and Matsui were in frequent contact.
But the alliance talks were suspended after Abe was elected LDP president in September and took a confrontational approach toward the Japan Restoration Party in preparing for the Lower House election.
After the election, Abe was again keen to work with the Japan Restoration Party and called Matsui for talks.
However, bringing two conservative parties together may weaken the long relationship between the LDP and New Komeito, a pacifist party supported mainly by Japan’s largest lay-Buddhist organization.
New Komeito officials have said they would not accept Abe’s militarist policies. They also warned Abe against being influenced by the Japan Restoration Party, led by outspoken nationalist Shintaro Ishihara.
Noting the junior coalition party’s concerns, Shigeru Ishiba, secretary-general of the LDP, stressed on a satellite TV program on Jan. 11 that his party’s ties with New Komeito are special.
“The relation between the LDP and the Japan Restoration Party is not something akin to the one between the LDP and New Kometio,” he said. “Ties cannot be built overnight.”
Still, after his meeting with Hashimoto and Matsui on Jan. 11, Abe told reporters that they have discovered common ground and want to cooperate.
Hashimoto, however, would not commit himself to an outright alliance with the LDP.
“The two parties should fully discuss policy measures,” Hashimoto said. “We can reach an agreement on some issues with the LDP, but we would not budge on others.”
Matsui signaled a willingness to go along with the LDP over the extra budget bill, saying the two parties are heading toward the same direction.
The governor has stayed in close contact with Suga and other LDP officials in compiling the extra budget, calling for a cut in the share of local governments’ expenditures for public works projects.
“Our job became easier because the governor is in direct contact with the prime minister’s office,” a senior official at the Osaka prefectural government said.
However, the Japan Restoration Party must also think about its own fortunes in the Upper House election, a crucial test for the young party.
The party gained 54 seats in the Lower House election, falling well short of expectations.
It is poised to field candidates in all constituencies in the Upper House election under the banner of blocking the LDP and New Komeito from capturing a majority.
If the party is seen by the public as too close to the LDP, voters could turn their backs on the Osaka-based party.
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