by Atsushi Ebihara
OSAKA, March 27 (Xinhua) -- Ahead of this summer's upper house election, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), which was launched by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, is expected to officially release its initial list of approved candidates at a party conference later this week.
But discord between Hashimoto on one side, who acts as the party's joint representative, and JRP Diet members based in Tokyo and local chiefs on the other, remains over party policies and Hashimoto's personal agenda.
Potential candidates are now being interviewed by the Osaka- based party about their motivation and political philosophy.
According to local media, the JRP will approve around 50 people on the first list while adjusting the number of candidates it nominates so as not to overlap with those from another small party, Your Party, in constituencies electing one to three Diet members.
The two parties agreed to this arrangement following policy consultations after the Lower House election held in December last year.
Ichiro Matsui, secretary general of the JRP and Osaka governor, recently said that his party plans to field candidates nationwide in districts other than those where Your Party candidates will run.
Last Monday, the party held its first video conference participated in by party officials in Osaka and Diet members affiliated with the JRP, aiming to show that the party's leadership in Osaka is focused on enhancing mutual understanding after a series of disputes between the two sides were revealed recently.
Opening the conference that was joined by about 10 lawmakers in Tokyo, Hashimoto told reporters he would like to decide the party' s policy through discussions since it is quite natural for politicians to have their differences.
During the conference, the participants agreed that the party will release next month its draft proposal on reforming the current system for Lower House elections, supporting a tentative plan drawn by an election reform research committee formed by a group of the JRP's Diet members.
According to local media, the plan will propose reducing the number of seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives by 30 percent, also calling for a shift from the current single-member constituency system to one with medium-sized constituencies. But the plan is expected to undergo further discussions because Hashimoto has been strongly opposed to a medium-sized constituency system.
Since January, the JRP has accelerated efforts to strengthen its regional networks in response to criticism that its popularity is not as high as party leaders had initially hoped for. The party has been establishing local branch offices one after another, especially in western Japan. Such moves are focused on local elections for municipal and prefectural assemblies as well as for mayors and governors, the daily Mainichi Shimbun reported.
In fact, 12 of the 14 Osaka-based party's candidates who ran in single-member constituencies in Osaka Prefecture in last December' s general election succeeded in winning seats against candidates approved by other political parties or groups. However, only two candidates won seats outside the region, in Okayama and Kumamoto in western Japan, far short of the JRP's announced goal.
The JRP has opened an election campaign office in Hyogo Prefecture, neighboring Osaka, on March 8 and already announced it will field an "approved" candidate for each of the mayoral races in the Hyogo Prefecture cities of Takarazuka and Itami next month, and possibly for the election in Kobe this autumn.
This would be the first time for the party to field official candidates on the local level since the JRP's establishment last year.
Some JRP leaders reportedly want to open a campaign office in Hiroshima City this spring to field a candidate against incumbent Hiroshima Governor Hidehiko Yuzaki ahead of the gubernatorial election scheduled this autumn.
Such moves reflect a strategic shift to strengthen regional political networks after the JRP ended with only 54 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives after December's general election.
Meanwhile, joint representative Hashimoto revealed a highly ambitious goal of having JRP candidates elected to all the governorships in the "Union of Kansai Governments", a local administrative organ consisting of 7 prefectures including Osaka and Hyogo.
The JRP is pushing for a new local administrative reform plan to replace the current 47 prefectural system with about 10 semi- autonomous regional blocs.
But this radical idea has been strongly opposed by Hyogo Governor Toshizo Ido, a critic of the new regional bloc system.
"There would be no local autonomy under a regional bloc system or under a political party which only wants to field candidates who advocate the party's pledges rather than the needs of local residents," Ido said. "I doubt if such a political move is acceptable to the locals," he added.