23-year-old LDP, Komeito partnership has come to crossroad

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, appears with Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi on March 11 at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo.

The relationship between the Liberal Democratic Party and its ruling coalition partner Komeito has become strained under the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The two parties have been at odds over sources of funding for the government’s emergency economic package aimed at mitigating the impact of soaring prices for crude oil and other goods, with the LDP resisting calls for a supplementary budget and Komeito pressing the government to compile one in the current Diet session.

Kishida was seeking to draw up a supplementary budget after the upper house election scheduled for July 10. He felt it was not a good idea to hold a Budget Committee meeting soon before the election, which would give the opposition parties a chance to pursue the matter.

It’s commonly believed that the LDP tends to struggle in large-scale national elections after a supplementary budget is enacted. In 1993, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa lost its majority in the House of Representatives election and resigned. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was also forced to resign after the 1998 upper house election. And in August 2009, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso was overwhelmingly defeated in the lower house election after a supplementary budget was approved that May.

But Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi has continued to staunchly demand the compilation of a supplementary budget in the current Diet session. In the end, the LDP was forced to make concessions, and Kishida announced at a press conference on April 26 that the government will submit a ¥2.7 trillion supplementary budget as soon as possible. The draft budget is expected to be adopted in late May, and the legislative session is scheduled to end in June.

Regarding cooperation in the election, the LDP and Komeito decided to forgo mutually endorsing each other’s candidates across the board and to instead coordinate fielding candidates depending on the constituency. However, efforts in this regard are lagging. For example, in Okayama, the LDP incumbent declared that “Komeito’s support is unnecessary,” remarks that met with strong criticism from Komeito. In some prefectures, prospective LDP candidates didn’t meet with the Komeito side until the end of April.

The lack of a liaison figure is a clear reason for the strain. The coalition is said to have reached its peak under the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which is the longest-serving in history. Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai established multi-layered personal relationships with executives of Komeito and Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist organization that backs Komeito.

However, the situation changed completely after the inauguration of the Kishida administration in October last year. Kishida has no notable ties with Komeito and Soka Gakkai other than Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Tetsuo Saito, whose constituency is in Hiroshima like Kishida’s. After Kishida won the LDP presidential election, his first meeting with Komeito leader Yamaguchi was to exchange cell phone numbers.

High-ranking government officials are keenly concerned about whether coordination over the revision of three key documents, including the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Program Guidelines, will proceed smoothly. After the election, discussions on security strategy are expected to intensify within the ruling parties, with an eye on revising the documents at the year’s end. Komeito has taken a cautious stance with regard to having the “capability to conduct counterattacks,” the ability to destroy missile launch bases and other enemy facilities in self-defense.

A particular issue is Yamaguchi’s strong reluctance to increase defense spending. Yamaguchi has questioned the LDP claim that defense spending should be increased to 2% of GDP, saying: “It’s impossible. Where do we get the money for that?” Yamaguchi, who has been in office for more than 12 years, is expected to retire after his term expires in September, and he is believed to be increasingly mulish.

Even if Kishida wins the election, it will require a great deal of political energy to enhance deterrence. An LDP member who served at the Defense Ministry has misgivings about whether Kishida, who keeps his distance from both Komeito and conservatives in the LDP, would be able to achieve such a feat.

As its relationship with Komeito is becoming complicated, the LDP is deepening policy cooperation with the Democratic Party for the People, whose main supporters are labor union members in the private sector. The 23-year-old coalition is facing new challenges.

Shuhei Kuromi

Kuromi is a deputy editor in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.