• Elections

As LDP slips, Komeito questions their coalition’s future

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An artist illustration : Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, left, and former Komeito lower house member Kiyohiko Toyama

Japan’s political parties are making preparations for the House of Representatives election that must be held by autumn. The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito face several internal issues, while the opposition parties search for ways to win more lower house seats. Amid all this, the LDP must also deal with an intraparty presidential vote involving Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

This series, Backstories to General Election, is appearing exclusively online on The Japan News. Information is accurate as of the time the series was originally printed in Japanese in The Yomiuri Shimbun in July.

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At a meeting of Soka Gakkai senior leadership convened on July 7 in Tokyo, Soka Gakkai president Minoru Harada heralded the Komeito’s success in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election: “We have conclusively proved projections wrong and achieved an exhilarating, resounding victory.”

The proclamation was met with deafening applause from the audience of nearly 1,000 members of the religious organization, which constitutes a central support base for the Komeito.

​ In the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, held just three days before, all 23 candidates fielded by the Komeito won seats.

Despite an undefeated streak extending over the past seven Tokyo assembly races, the Komeito was not a clear favorite in this year’s election. The novel coronavirus had inhibited the campaign activities of Soka Gakkai and Komeito candidates were expected to cede ground to their rivals.

​ “We might lose at least four seats,” whispered concerned voices within the party’s halls before the election.

But when all was said and done, the party triumphed.

“It’s a miracle,” said Yosuke Takagi, Komeito’s Tokyo headquarters chief.

Looking ahead to the next House of Representatives election, however, the party might want to hold off on the back-patting just yet.

The Komeito’s coalition partner on the national political stage, the Liberal Democratic Party, suffered a “defeat” in the Tokyo assembly race — winning only 33 seats in the Tokyo assembly race, the second-paltriest showing in the LDP’s history.

In some electoral districts, the LDP fielded multiple candidates, only for them to lose and create an opening for Komeito candidates to slide in.

“We snatched victory [in Tokyo], thanks to the floundering LDP. But our parties may still topple together in the lower house election,” said a senior Komeito member.

The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has come under fire for its response to the novel coronavirus. The flames have been further fanned by a series of “politics and money” scandals within the prime minister’s LDP, not to mention the eyebrow-raising conduct of some of its members.

Inevitably, the Komeito has been left feeling the LDP lacks a requisite sense of impending crisis.

The Komeito has been particularly sensitive to the LDP’s handling of its “Ginza nightlife” scandals, in which three lower house members left the LDP after meeting in Ginza clubs late into the night, despite the state of emergency in Tokyo. Within the LDP, talk of reinstating the three politicos ahead of the lower house election has been gaining traction.

Meanwhile, in a similar scandal, Kiyohiko Toyama — once eyed as a promising next-generation leader by the Komeito — was compelled to resign from his post in the lower house, dashing the Komeito’s hopes of his running in the upcoming lower house election.

“It’s unconscionable that [those LDP members implicated in the scandal] would be allowed to make a comeback within their party before the election, when our Toyama had to resign [from the lower house] entirely,” said a senior Soka Gakkai official, expressing distaste with the talk of reinstating the LDP members so soon. “They’re just going to stir the problem up all over again.”

The LDP and Komeito have also fallen out of step over a bill to revise the law on Diet member salaries, travel expense and other allowances. Championed by Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, the bill would have called for such remits would be returned to state coffers, in the event that a Diet member’s election were to be nullified. However, the LDP decided on June 9 not to submit the revision bill to the ordinary Diet session.

Yamaguchi did not hide his dissatisfaction at the deferral: “It’s regrettable. It was important that we present a solution before the next election comes around. We want the LDP to step up and go the extra mile.”

But the Komeito’s bullish tone has ruffled some feathers in the LDP.

In a TV appearance following the Tokyo metropolitan assembly race, Yamaguchi said it “might be desirable” for dissolution of the lower house to wait until after the LDP presidential election. As public approval ratings of the Suga Cabinet slip, waiting for vaccinations against the novel coronavirus to make further progress would “create a more favorable climate for the election.”

The LDP pushed back against the remarks. “How the party presidential election will be carried out is something the party will decide on its own,” said Seiko Noda, the LDP’s executive acting secretary-general. “How far does the Komeito dare insert themselves [in our own affairs]?” she added, expressing the discontents that have been smoldering within the LDP.

Yamaguchi: Election a fundamental test

More than 20 years have passed since the LDP and Komeito joined forces to form their ruling coalition, but the absence of a “go-between” to mediate between the two parties is now testing the strength of their bond.

Tomio Fujii, a former Tokyo assemblyman from Komeito who died on July 11 at the age of 96, was instrumental in the birth of the coalition, given his direct access to many LDP leaders, including Hiromu Nonaka, former secretary-general of the party.

There were once many mediators like Fujii, connecting the two parties on various levels. Suga, who has been close to Komeito since his tenure as Chief Cabinet Secretary, frequently phones Yamaguchi to talk. But the pipelines have steadily narrowed where the nitty-gritty politicking takes place. A conspicuous example of these communication bottlenecks has been Komeito’s frustration at the lack of coordination on COVID-19 countermeasures.

Despite all the myriad grievances between the two, elections are one arena that has fostered deeper cooperation.

The elections of many LDP members now hinge on Komeito supporters, a voting bloc said to reach 20,000 votes per single-seat constituency.

Conversely, the nine-single seat constituencies in with the Komeito plans to field its own candidates are almost unwinnable without the LDP’s support.

The Soka Gakkai’s membership is graying and the young generation growing increasingly apolitical. As a result, the Komeito has been garnering dwindling turnouts in national elections, heightening their thirst for the votes of LDP supporters.

At LDP headquarters on June 10, Suga handed an unofficial recommendation over to each of the nine Komeito candidates slated to run in single-seat constituencies in the lower house election, together with a square signature board bearing the message, “victory.”

The decision to recommend candidates is usually made after dissolving the lower house, so the anointment was something new for the party. The moment was brought about at the behest of the Komeito, in an attempt to drum up widespread support for its candidates among LDP voters, by obtaining an LDP endorsement as early as possible.

​ Yamaguchi, during a speech on July 12, offered his assessment of the essence of the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition: “The ruling coalition’s longevity is due to our cooperation during elections. The next test [of our coalition] will be the lower house election.”