Realignment scenarios

After months of talking about forming a new party, Hiranuma Takeo, a leading LDP postal rebel who spurned LDP efforts to bring him back into the party during the Abe era, may finally be taking steps to create a new conservative party that may yet be a fly in the LDP’s ointment.

Mr. Hiranuma has reportedly been in talks with other former LDP members — “independent conservatives” — to form a new study group. Partners in this endeavor include Watanuki Tamisuke, leader of the PNP; Kamei Shizuka, the PNP’s secretary-general; Suzuki Muneo, the disgraced (and indicted) former LDP member, partner-in-corruption of the late Matsuoka Toshikatsu, and representative of his own Hokkaido-based New Party Big Earth; and Nakamura Kishiro, construction minister in the Miyazawa cabinet who was subsequently left the LDP, was arrested and charged with influence peddling in 1994, continued to win elections and serve as an independent HR member until 2003, when the Supreme Court rejected his final appeal and promptly stripped him of his seat and sent him to prison until 2004 when he was paroled (he won his seat back in the 2005 election).

These LDP castaways agreed to take a confrontational stance towards the “Fukuda cabinet’s policy line,” suggesting that this PNP+ grouping could be the beginning of Mr. Hiranuma’s new party, throwing a wrinkle into a political realignment.

Or will it? While Mr. Hiranuma clearly has links to Nakagawa Shoichi and other conservative ideologues in the LDP, it is not at all clear that Mr. Hiranuma will be able to entice them to join his party, considering the ragtag group he has assembled around him. That won’t stop the DPJ from looking to bolster Mr. Hiranuma’s party in the hope that it will break the LDP. On Monday, Hatoyama Yukio, the DPJ’s secretary-general, greeted the news of Mr. Hiranuma’s group by calling for cooperation. I hope cooperation goes no further. For all Mr. Hiranuma’s anti-LDP posturing, I suspect that his tune would change were Aso Taro elected as leader, suggesting that this gambit may be less an effort to create a third pole in the political system than to improve the terms for Mr. Hiranuma’s eventual reunion with the LDP. Ibuki Bunmei, LDP secretary-general, has already come calling.

Mr. Hiranuma cannot possibly think that his party could become a significant third force in Japanese politics. Considering that it would be little different from the PNP, which has elected a grand total of eight representatives (four HR, four HC), why should anyone expect the Hiranuma new party to be anything but a guppy? Obviously that would change if the LDP’s conservative wing were to leave the party en masse and join with Mr. Hiranuma, but at that point it would no longer be the Hiranuma new party but the Hiranuma-Abe-Nakagawa-Aso true conservative party, with the “H” increasingly pushed to the side.

The Japanese political system might have room for a third, swing party between two big parties, but I doubt that the swing party will have the ideological coloration of the Hiranuma new party.

The prospect of a Koizumi new party remains, to me, the more intriguing possibility. An article in the June issue of Bungei Shunjyu suggests (in part one) that Mr. Koizumi views the present crisis — a natural outgrowth of his ransacking of the LDP — as an opportunity to build a new political system, with Koike Yuriko acting as his stalking horse.

Another scenario discussed in the latter portion of the article is a bid by Ozawa Ichiro to pry the LDP’s liberals away, similar to his failed attempt in 1994 to pry Watanabe Michio and his followers away from the LDP by promising Mr. Watanabe the premiership. The target for Mr. Ozawa’s efforts supposedly is Kato Koichi, the once-promising liberal, although it is unlikely that the has-been Mr. Kato could bring significant numbers of LDP members with him.

Nevertheless, if the conservatives retake control of the LDP under Mr. Aso and reunite with Mr. Hiranuma, that alliance could prove fatal for the LDP, as the readmission of Mr. Hiranuma and the other postal rebels could lead Mr. Koizumi and his followers out of the party, perhaps prompting liberals unconnected to Mr. Koizumi to leave too and drift towards the DPJ.

But I still suspect that nothing will happen until after the next general election. Until an election is held, no group knows just how valuable its hand is. The size of the LDP’s majority — if it retains a majority — will make all the difference when it comes to potential separatists considering whether to split (the same logic applies to Komeito’s partnership with the LDP). The larger the majority, the stronger the LDP will be respective to potential splinter groups. Should the DPJ have a strong showing that puts it within striking distance of a majority, however, there will be a brutal war for the loyalty of possible defectors and Komeito (the latter especially in the event that the governing coalition retains a majority, but not the LDP independently).

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