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News Analysis: Japan's opposition realignment up in the air after second-largest party splits

By Jon Day (Xinhua)    18:49, June 25, 2014
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TOKYO, June 25 -- Following the split of the country's second-largest opposition party, the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), with the two splinter factions led by former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto set to go their separate ways, concerns are rife among some opposition party contingents about their diminishing voice in the national government.

Tensions within the JRP had been mounting between its leaders since the party was founded in the autumn of 2012, with Hashimoto' s focus on making Osaka, Japan's second biggest city, more autonomous from Tokyo, whereas Ishihara and his ultra-right leaning convictions wanting his Tokyo-based faction and the overall party to support his push for constitutional reform.

"Ishihara is a hard-nosed nationalist and was very much against Hashimoto's push for a tie up with the relatively newly-formed Unity Party (Yui no To) as party leader Kenji Eda and the 13 other legislators who also left Your Party, are against the notion of revising or reinterpreting the Constitution and have similar policy goals to Hashimoto," Japanese Affairs commentator Kaoru Imori told Xinhua.

"It's safe to assume that Ishihara felt the merger with Unity Party would not serve his purposes, as Eda's plans to expand the party to become a dominant opposition force in the Diet haven't happened, and as we all know based on his recent remarks, Ishihara has no interest in toothless politics," Imori said.

Imori went on to say that Ishihara would now likely steer his party closer to that of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as the LDP's overwhelming majority in both houses of parliament can, more-or-less, single-handedly affect legislative change, with little resistance from an opposition camp in a shambles trying to reorganize itself.

The statistics speak volumes, with more than 97 percent of LDP- sponsored bills being passed into law since the ruling bloc regained a majority in the upper house after the July 2013 election. Observers have said that it's no surprise that Ishihara is looking for new avenues to leave his signature nationalistic mark on politics once again, and it remains to be seen if the brusque politician will garner further support from other opposition parties.

Meanwhile, Hashimoto will likely continue with his plans to merge with the Unity Party, with political pundits believing that Hashimoto, although also known for harboring some hawkish views, along with his new coterie, will continue with his plans for a more independent Osaka, whilst trumpeting slightly enervating anti- nuclear notions.

The JRP's split has left many political commentators speculating about the future of the opposition bloc, with the so- called "third political force," which comprised the JRP and Your Party and a host of smaller opposition parties, struggling to find their political footing, with Your Party being deflated by a money scandal involving its leader "borrowing" 800 million yen (7.8 million U.S. dollars) from a cosmetics company president and the Unity Party failing to live up to hopes.

In December, former Your Party leader Eda said he was hoping the numbers of lawmakers joining his group would swell to around 100, with the group and its new political allies, namely the JRP, uniting together to stand against an ever-powerful ruling coalition bloc that is abusing its powers in an increasingly autocratic and unilateral manner.

He said that smaller opposition parties need to join forces against the dominance of the LDP-led coalition, and said that theoretically a new party could be formed to become the dominant opposition party in politics in Japan, overtaking the now main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and as the dominant opposition force in parliament would have the biggest clout to defend against the LDP's current browbeating of smaller opposition parties in parliament.

Despite Eda's high-hopes for a monumental realignment in the opposition camp, there are currently limited signs of this happening, and while anti-LDP factions exist within Hashimoto and Eda's clique, Hashimoto himself has stated that he wishes to cooperate more closely with the ruling party and his former ally, Abe.

"We are the first opposition party that is ready to cooperate with the government where needed. We want to join hands even after breaking up," Hashimoto was quoted as saying at a recent press briefing, signaling that without cozying up to Abe and the LDP, he risks losing his voice in national politics.

"The intra-party dynamics among parties in the opposition camp at the moment are coming across as profoundly disorganized, even within the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan," political analyst Teruhisa Muramatsu told Xinhua.

"This doesn't bode well for a political realignment to better stand against the LDP in parliament at the moment and perhaps right now the onus of responsibility lies with Hashimoto, as Ishihara and Abe are now on the same page over the Constitution and collective self-defense," Muramatsu said.

"If not Hashimoto, the opposition camp really needs someone to stand up and unite a sizable number of lawmakers who agree on policies Abe and the LDP don't, such as collective self-defense and Constitutional issues, or anti-nuclear stances and look to pull in New Komeito as far as possible."

But Muramatsu added that it was a Catch-22 situation as New Komeito's national presence comes from being the junior coalition ally of the LDP and a departure at this juncture could strip the party of the clout it has at the moment, as proved by its cautious, albeit now softening stance towards Abe's push for collective self- defense, which at a bare minimum has led to extended debate beyond Abe's deadline, and New Komeito not bowing to Abe's demands as quickly as he once assumed.

The political analyst also noted that the DPJ seems more concerned with in-fighting over its leadership woes, than establishing itself as a bone fide force, capable of keeping the LDP in check and from running amok.

"Opposition parties are also to blame for a lack of active debate over policy issues in the Diet. The largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan has been rocked by a tug-of-war among its members over whether its leader Banri Kaieda should step down, " the Mainichi Shimbun also said in a recent editorial on the matter.

"Kaieda, who pledged to make tangible achievements after the DPJ suffered a humiliating defeat in the upper house election in summer last year, recently held talks with the leaders of other political parties in a desperate bid to demonstrate his ' achievements.' Parties in the third political force are now enthusiastic about realigning opposition parties. However, none of these parties has clearly shown policy measures they want to achieve by all means," the editorial said.

"The ruling and opposition parties have not squarely held debate on whether Japan should exercise the right to collective self-defense largely because the DPJ has failed to determine its position over the issue. Many opposition parties are also responsible for failing to have an open battle of words over key policy issues as they have been unable to confront the government, " the editorial said, reflecting Muramatsu's own sentiments.

(Editor:Du Mingming、Bianji)

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