In sharp contrast to the governing Liberal Democratic Party, which is flexing more political muscle as it woos New Komeito to join the ruling coalition, the Democratic Party of Japan seems to be at a loss on how to find a way to shore up its sagging position in national politics.
Despite its gains in an Upper House election last July, the DPJ’s popularity has dropped to around 10 percent in recent media polls, and the No. 1 opposition party now needs to reorganize its strategy for the remaining Diet session and for the next general election, which must be held by October 2000 at the latest.
What went wrong?
Among the major mishandlings of the DPJ, its failure to form a united opposition front against the LDP is believed to have been a major blow to the party.
The LDP-Liberal Party coalition that was formed in January has passed many important bills through the current Diet session by forming a de facto alliance with New Komeito. The three-way alliance is expected to develop into a tripartite coalition government as early as this summer, following New Komeito’s convention in July.
“The DPJ lacks political experience and a solid strategy,” political analyst Minoru Morita said. “And it did not make enough of an effort to entice other opposition parties, such as the Liberal Party and New Komeito, when the two parties sided with it.”
The DPJ enjoyed its heyday after last summer’s Upper House election, when the LDP suffered a humiliating setback that led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
In a Diet vote to elect the next prime minister, DPJ leader Naoto Kan was nominated as the nation’s leader in the opposition-controlled Upper House by obtaining votes not only from DPJ legislators but also from other opposition forces, including the Liberal Party, New Komeito and the Japanese Communist Party.
In an extraordinary Diet session last fall the LDP was forced to accept a counterproposal by the DPJ-led opposition forces to temporarily nationalize failing banks.
However, because the DPJ placed priority on passing important bills through the Diet rather than toppling the LDP-led administration, the Liberal Party, which had sought to dislodge the LDP from power, became disillusioned with the DPJ and began to distance itself from the party.
The Liberal Party and New Komeito eventually sided with the LDP after the extra Diet session because it was a quicker way to adopt their key policies.
Another weakness of the DPJ is that it is made up of a wide variety of lawmakers, from conservatives to social democrats. Because of the differences in ideology among its members and interests of the party’s various support groups, the DPJ has to struggle to maintain unity when controversial issues such as national security emerge.
The party’s deep-rooted distress dates back to its formation in April last year. It was a merger of four parties — the DPJ, Shinto Yuai (Amity Party), Minseito (Good Governance Party) and the Democratic Reform Party — and each group is backed by different support groups.
“Due to constant fear that the party may fall apart, DPJ leader Kan only acts as a coordinator among different groups,” lamented Shigefumi Matsuzawa, a young DPJ lawmaker. “He has spent much of his energy on the coordination work and is far from taking initiatives to achieve a major policy goal.”
A secretary of a DPJ lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said sectionalism in the party is also delaying selecting candidates for the next general election.
The party was supposed to finish selecting 250 candidates for the next election by the end of last month, but it has only selected 115 so far.
“Incumbent DPJ lawmakers and labor unions supporting them have pressured the party leadership to field candidates close to them in the hope of expanding membership of their groups through the election, while also being concerned about the possible dissolution of the party,” the secretary said. “But when one labor union wants to back a person in a certain constituency, it’s usually the case that other labor unions oppose it.”
If the DPJ suffers a dramatic defeat in the next election, it is likely that Kan will be forced to step down. However, the party seems to have no leader strong enough to replace him.
Some observers say DPJ Deputy Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama could be the next leader, but others feel he would draw even less public support.
Some DPJ members say the party should drive a wedge between the LDP-Liberal Party alliance and New Komeito, for example, by supporting a plan to reduce the number of Lower House seats elected by proportional representation by 50. The alliance suggested the reduction plan, but it is vehemently opposed by New Komeito.
But the DPJ executives who have not completely given up on forging an opposition alliance with New Komeito are reluctant to do anything that would anger New Komeito.
The precarious attitude of their leaders has also fueled frustration among the DPJ’s rank-and-file.
Earlier this month, Hatoyama hinted the party may consider an alliance with the JCP, while Kan expressed readiness to back former Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato, whom Kan is said to be ideologically close to, if Kato, of the LDP, runs in a Diet election for the next prime minister.
Both leaders’ remarks were retracted immediately, but it gave the impression that the party leadership does not have a united strategy to gain more power in the Diet.
The only way for the DPJ to crawl out of its current crisis, it seems, would be to expand its support base among nonaffiliated voters.
The DPJ’s Matsuzawa said he thinks the party could draw wider support from nonaffiliated voters, some of whom are believed to be disgusted with the LDP-Liberal Party-New Komeito alliance.
“In the last Upper House election, some supporters of the Liberal Party and New Komeito voted for the two parties while criticizing the LDP,” he said. “This means the two parties are now betraying their supporters.”