Smaller coalition parties strengthen Koizumi's grip in Japan

Associated Press/November 8, 2003
By Hans Greimel

Tokyo -- A small party backed by a Buddhist sect and another that features an outspoken actress-turned-lawmaker will likely play a key role in helping Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi keep a firm grasp on power after Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Strange bedfellows since Koizumi came to power in 2001, the three-party coalition comprising the New Komeito, New Conservative and the ruling Liberal Democratic parties has largely survived on a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" philosophy.

And with Koizumi setting his sights on just a simple majority in Sunday's vote, the added support of junior partners is just the buffer his LDP might need.

The LDP already has a majority 247 seats out of 480 in the more powerful lower house. But it leans on its smaller partners for an air of consensus when passing laws in a country that frowns on the idea of a single party ramming through legislation.

New Komeito chips in 31 seats, and the New Conservatives add another nine. While the numbers aren't huge, they push the LDP closer to a two-thirds majority needed for such procedures as amending the constitution, a key plank in the LDP platform.

As junior partners, the parties are expected to remain largely silent and to go with the LDP flow and Koizumi's push to streamline the government and revive Japan's sickly economy.

In return, they receive Cabinet seats and a sense of legitimacy from being part of the ruling bloc. In Sunday's election, for example, the LDP and its partners have agreed not to run competing candidates in most districts.

"Being part of the government brings certain spoils," said Brad Glosserman, a Japan expert at the Pacific Forum think tank in Honolulu. "You get your finger in the pie, you get the right photo ops, you have a voice in some decision making."

As for spoils, each party holds a post in Koizumi's Cabinet -- Komeito's Chikara Sakaguchi as health minister; the New Conservative's Kiichi Inoue as minister of disaster management. But credibility is something still consistently sought by both parties.

The New Komeito was formed in 1964 as the political arm of Soka Gakkai, a so-called "new religion" based on esoteric Buddhism that was founded in 1930 and persecuted by Japan's military government during World War II for questioning emperor worship.

Soka Gakkai teaches that one cannot attain true happiness until society and its rulers are converted as well, and the group actively seeks converts in Japan and abroad.

The 8 million members of the Buddhist sect translate into unflinching support for the New Komeito. But critics brand it a threat to Japan's postwar democracy because of its members' fierce spiritual and financial allegiance to sect leader Daisaku Ikeda.

"Its support is very important to the Liberal Democratic Party," said Tetsuro Kato, a political scientist at Japan's Hitotsubashi University. Calling the New Komeito a "very strong and well organized organization," Kato said it was likely to gain seats on Sunday.

The outlook for the New Conservatives, however, was not so bright.

Rechristened last year after a series of mergers and break ups with other minor players, it draws mainly from urban, independent voters, a constituency in which the LDP tends to be weak.

One of its biggest pulls is Chikage Ogi, a musical actress-turned lawmaker who became Japan's first female construction minister under Koizumi's LDP predecessor, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

Known for her taste for wearing a kimono in Parliament and her blunt, outspoken manner, Ogi once caused a stir by calling a radiation leak from Japan's first nuclear-powered ship "natural" because the vessel was just a prototype. Under Koizumi, she stayed on as transportation minister but was replaced in a September Cabinet shuffle.

Kato, however, predicted that the New Conservatives could lose seats Sunday amid a trend of voter disaffection for small, splinter parties. Most analysts expect the swing voters to turn out for either the LDP or the main opposition rival, the Democratic Party of Japan.

That hasn't dimmed the enthusiasm of New Conservative Party head Hiroshi Kumagai.

During a recent campaign stop, he stumped as much for Koizumi's platform as his own, pledging: "We must get through this contest so the tripartite coalition can push through the reforms."

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