Thursday, 30 January 2014

Japanese politics: The odd couple

Nguồn tin:

NATSUO YAMAGUCHI is the leader of Japan’s junior coalition party, New Komeito. He likes to boast that Komeito acts like an “opposition party within the ruling party”, reining in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, when it really counts. It has meant friction over virtually every significant policy since the coalition took office in late 2012. After not a little spousal abuse, the LDP may now be looking at ways to dump its unlikely partner. The wonder, indeed, is that this mismatched political pairing has endured so long.

Relations hit a low point over Mr Abe’s visit in December to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, a memorial to Japan’s war dead controversial for its honouring of 14 high-ranking war criminals. Mr Yamaguchi quickly added his party’s voice to the outcry at home and abroad. Soon afterwards, LDP officials lashed out at New Komeito’s refusal to force party members in Nago, a city in Okinawa prefecture, to vote for an LDP-backed candidate in a critical local election on January 19th. He lost. Had he won, the relocation of Futenma, a key American marine base at the centre of years of political wrangling, would have been made much easier, boosting Mr Abe.

A bust-up between the two partners now looms. The LDP will soon challenge the constitutional interpretation that bans collective self-defence, a pillar of Japan’s post-war pacifist stance. Opinion polls suggest more than half of the public oppose Mr Abe’s pet project. More problematically, his Buddhist-backed and avowedly pacifist partner also rejects revision. It is the two parties’ toughest issue this year, says an LDP insider. Still, he says, in 1994 the LDP managed to persuade a still more left-leaning governing partner, the Social Democratic Party of Japan, to accept that the country’s Self-Defence Forces were compatible with the constitution.

The differences lie across the policy spectrum. While the LDP aims to switch back on Japan’s mothballed nuclear reactors, its junior partner campaigned against nuclear power in the past two elections. Mr Abe favours an increasingly robust approach towards China and its ratcheting up of tensions over island claims. New Komeito, with long-standing informal ties to the Chinese leadership, wants more talk and less sabre-rattling. The two parties also disagree over the economy. New Komeito questioned Mr Abe’s moves last year to assert influence over the central bank’s conduct of monetary policy.

With his poll ratings high, Mr Abe appears to be looking at alliances with two likelier LDP bedfellows, the economically liberal Your Party and the right-wing Japan Restoration Party. Yet the bond that binds this political odd couple is clear: votes. Backed by Japan’s most powerful lay Buddhist sect, Soka Gakkai, with 8m members, New Komeito has consistently delivered a huge chunk of Japan’s conservative countryside since the coalitions began in the late 1990s. Soka Gakkai is in effect a huge volunteer army of canvassers. By contrast, neither Your Party nor the Japan Restoration Party has a local election machine.

Another factor in the coalition is murkier. In the 1990s perhaps half in the LDP wanted to strip Soka Gakkai of its status as a religious corporation, according to Koichi Kato, a veteran former LDP lawmaker, potentially forcing it to pay taxes on its enormous assets. The threat evaporated after the LDP’s electoral machine faltered later in the decade, but the party was not above using that legal stick to control its junior partner, says Mr Kato. Mr Yamaguchi denies this. “It’s impossible for us to be in the coalition just to bring preferential treatment to our supporters,” he says. “We must serve everyone.” He insists that only with public support will the party change its position on the constitution.

The coming months will show just how far Mr Yamaguchi is prepared to bend in service of the LDP. Any big shift by Komeito on collective self-defence risks losing its identity as a party defined by its pacifism—and with it the support of its religious followers. After much bickering, a divorce is not out of the question.

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