SNA (Tokyo) — This should be the best of times for the New Komeito Party. Somehow they remained loyal partners of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) even after the crushing electoral defeat of August 2009, and they patiently weathered more than three years on the opposition benches while the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) mismanaged the nation. By rights, the last two national elections should be judged a triumph in which this party performed well and its ally came to dominate the government ranks. And yet, as 2014 begins, the chambers of New Komeito counsels can be filled only with anxiousness and doubt.
Part of the problem is that the LDP’s electoral victories were too large. Today the ruling party holds 293 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives and 114 seats in the 242-seat House of Councillors. That means that the LDP has its own comfortable majority in the more powerful lower house and is in easy striking distance (7 seats) of a majority in the upper house. New Komeito therefore has some leverage, but actually not that much.
By normal political calculations, the LDP-New Komeito coalition ought to be a safe one. Both parties derive major benefits from sticking together, and the formula is now a proven winner at the polls. New Komeito brings to the table not only its lawmakers in the Diet, but also one of Japan’s most effective political machines, the Soka Gakkai religious organization. From an electoral point of view, continuing the LDP-New Komeito alliance is a no brainer.
And yet, by normal political calculations one would not have expected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to visit Yasukuni Shrine on December 26. The political benefits of that visit in terms of reassuring Abe’s hard right base were far outstripped by the political troubles it is stirring up for him. The Abe of Abenomics is a consensus figure that the broad middle of the Japanese public appreciates; but the Abe of Yasukuni is a polarizing figure who makes the average Japanese citizen uncomfortable. It makes little sense for Shinzo Abe to jeopardize mainstream popularity and success for the purpose of pursuing the extreme agenda of a distinct ideological minority.
Except, of course, that Shinzo Abe himself is a true believer in that extreme agenda.
And this is why the LDP-New Komeito coalition — though it remains by far the wisest choice to continue it — may actually be in trouble. Prime Minister Abe is showing signs of believing that this is his time for action; the time to fulfill the political dreams of a lifetime. New Komeito says it wants to “act as a brake” on the more radical impulses of the Abe government; Shinzo Abe may reckon that what he needs in a partner now is not a brake but an accelerator.
Both the remains of Your Party and most of the Japan Restoration Party are signaling clearly to Prime Minister Abe that they are willing partners in advancing his agenda of a lifetime. All he needs to do is dump his current dancing partner and invite them to the ball.
As for the New Komeito Party, they are now relegated to an unenviable position: They can stay in a governing coalition in which they have little leverage and ability to stop an agenda which betrays the principles upon which the party was originally founded upon; or they can break away and join an opposition that appears nowhere near gaining power (although having New Komeito on the opposition benches would immediately make the liberal opposition much more formidable).
The issue that is already shaping up as a major test is the exercise of the right of collective-self defense. As he was leaving today on a trip to India, New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi appealed to the prime minister to leave in place the current policy, which has gained international trust. Others, like Yoshimi Watanabe and Shintaro Ishihara, are egging on the Prime Minister Abe to make the changes that everyone knows he very much wants to make.
It’s not difficult to figure out which way Shinzo Abe will go on this issue; but it’s a more reasonable question to ask just how far the New Komeito Party can follow him down that road before they’ve had enough.
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