The Democratic Party of Japan is having an identity crisis.
Although the largest opposition party adopted a new policy platform at its party convention Sunday, it failed to include any key issues or doctrines that differentiate it from its rivals.
Political observers warn that the party is running the risk of suffering another crushing defeat in the House of Councilors election in July, following December’s Lower House poll, in which the party lost 173 of its 230 seats in the chamber.
“The situation is very tough for the DPJ,” said Yasunori Sone, professor of politics at Keio University. “In general, (voters) become critical of the government before an Upper House vote and ruling parties face an uphill battle. But this time, the DPJ can’t find any tactics to fight the election.”
Media polls suggest the DPJ is heading for another defeat so big it could even jeopardize the party’s existence.
According to an opinion poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun between Feb. 8 and 10, the DPJ had only a 6 percent support rate, in stark contrast with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which surged to 42 from 37 percent since the last month’s survey.
Meanwhile, the approval rate for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, which was launched only two months ago, rose to 71 from 68 percent.
If the DPJ goes down to defeat again in July’s Upper House election, observers believe many members will jump ship, and the party that won by a landslide in the 2009 general election may end up as a negligible political force in the Diet.
The collapse may have already begun.
On Friday, two DPJ lawmakers expressed their intention to leave the party, reducing the number of DPJ members in the House of Councilors — where the party is the largest force — to 85, only two more than the chamber’s second-largest group, led by the LDP.
“We need to get back the fighting spirit. I find many local party members have been moping” since December’s election, DPJ Secretary General Goshi Hosono said Wednesday.
Yet the DPJ failed to produce any surprises at its party convention Sunday to energize voters or reverse its flagging support rate.
“The existence of the party itself is at stake” in the Upper House election, as well as in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in June, DPJ President Banri Kaieda told the convention.
During a news conference afterward, Kaieda failed to cite specifics when asked what policies the DPJ will focus on for the Upper House poll to distinguish itself from its rivals.
Falling back on bromides, Kaieda responded that the DPJ, in contrast to other parties, will emphasize the government’s responsibility to curb public debt for the sake of future generations while putting less faith in the beneficence of the free market.
Initially, the DPJ leadership considered positioning the party as “middle of the road” or “liberal” to stand out from the right-leaning LDP and the powerful new opposition upstart Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party).
But, pressured by their own right-leaning comrades, party executives dropped two key words in the platform, blunting the edge of the party’s new message.
The same happened to the DPJ’s stance on constitutional revision. While both the LDP and Nippon Ishin are clearly calling for a reappraisal of the pacifist Constitution, DPJ lawmakers are still split. In the end, party executives had no choice but to remain ambiguous in the platform.
“We will realize the basic spirits advocated by the Japanese Constitution, namely sovereignty of the people, respect for fundamental human rights and pacifism,” the new two-page platformreads in part, amounting to a vow to maintain the status quo.
Nonetheless, another sentence was inserted to appease DPJ lawmakers who favor revising the pacifist charter: “(Meanwhile) we will envisage a future-oriented Constitution.”
Sone of Keio University said that the DPJ could have positioned itself as a center-left party serving as a counterweight to the right-leaning, more marketed-oriented parties such as the LDP and Nippon Ishin.
For example, the DPJ, which was in power from 2009 through 2012, could have focused on social security reform, for instance a public pension system that is straining to cope with the aging population, Sone said.
But the DPJ lost its nerve after realizing the huge financial cost to voters of such reforms.
“Voters are not convinced yet that the DPJ is serious about reforming itself and is determined to win back power in the next (Lower House election),” Sone said, adding the party appears headed for another electoral defeat this summer.