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Opposition disparity: No end in sight

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

The opposition camp is rife with disunity and unable to exert any political say against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-led government, now that the LDP controls about 60 percent of the Diet.

And the way things stand now, without any national election on the immediate horizon to galvanize the various, even diametrically opposed, opposition parties toward any kind of unity, let alone to find a common leader, the LDP-New Komeito coalition juggernaut will continue to call the shots.

The LDP’s landslide victory in the House of Councilors election in July handed the ruling camp a comfortable majority in both chambers. It also erased the clout the opposition camp enjoyed when the Diet was divided. All that is left is the chance to grill Abe’s Cabinet ministers when the Diet is in session.

Some of the opposition parties are just struggling to stay alive.

One case in point is the Social Democratic Party, whose new leader, Tadatomo Yoshida, was given no time to question Abe’s policy speech last week because the SDP lacks the five Upper House lawmakers needed for the leader of a parliamentary group to ask questions in the Diet.

But multiparty efforts are afoot to muster a powerful force to counter the ruling party.

Key among them is DRY no Kai, a group formed by members of the Democratic Party of Japan, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party. The name was coined from their initial letters.

The group is the brainchild of former DPJ Secretary-General Goshi Hosono, former Your Party Secretary-General Kenji Eda and Nippon Ishin Secretary-General Yorihisa Matsuno. But as a sign of the disarray, even within the parties, Hosono was stripped of his post for joining the DRY no Kai initiative.

When the DRY no Kai study group convened on Oct. 15 — the day the extraordinary Diet session opened — it attracted about 60 people.

But critics say it will be difficult to forge a force against the LDP when each party is beset by internal squabbling and there are no concerted efforts to form a coalition against the ruling camp. The parties also represent various political stripes, most with little in common.

“Unless we have an election soon, the momentum for political realignment will not get rolling. It is just a start,” said Norihiko Narita, a professor at Surugadai University who served as a secretary to former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and advised former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the DPJ.

In 1993, Hosokawa, who led the now defunct Japan New Party, formed the first non-LDP government since 1955.

It is unlikely a national election will be held until 2016, when an Upper House election is scheduled and the current Lower House members’ terms expire. There is no reason for Abe to dissolve the Diet or call a Lower House election as long as his public approval ratings, currently hovering at around 60 percent, stay high. But it all hinges on whether he can follow through on his promise to deliver economic growth and push up wages.

Public dissatisfaction with the opposition meanwhile is hampering the creation of new political force. According to a September poll by the daily Nikkei Shimbun, 55 percent of the respondents said they support the LDP.

The Japanese Communist Party came in second place, ahead of the DPJ, but with a score of only 6 percent.

The DPJ received only 5 percent support after being ousted from power last December, while Your Party and Nippon Ishin recorded shockingly low approval rates, of 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Your Party’s plunge was precipitated by the internal bickering between party leader Yoshimi Watanabe and former Secretary-General Kenji Eda.

Although the duo have been the main face of the party, Watanabe removed Eda as secretary-general because they have conflicting views on how to bring about a change in government.

While Eda thinks creating a new party is one way to bring about change, Watanabe is pushing for creating a loose bloc across party lines so his party won’t have to compromise on its goals.

He also didn’t like the idea of Eda participating in the formation of DRY no Kai because he saw it as a threat to the party.

To consolidate his power, Watanabe adopted the coalition idea and issued a de facto ban on all members from attending DRY no Kai study group meetings.

Meanwhile, Nippon Ishin is being forced to set new goals and restructure after taking a blow from last month’s mayoral election in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture.

The Nippon Ishin-endorsed candidate lost to incumbent Osami Takeyama, who opposed the plan to integrate Osaka Prefecture with the city of Osaka, the grand goal of Ishin co-leader Toru Hashimoto, the Osaka mayor.

In the wake of the loss, Hashimoto, once the popular face of the party, said earlier this month that he would focus on his main job as mayor, giving more discretion to the Diet members led by Nippon Ishin co-leader Shintaro Ishihara.

“Political realignment should be spearheaded by senior lawmakers like us who are wily like an old fox,” Ishihara said in a TV interview earlier this month.

Narita of Surugadai University said it’s unclear if either Your Party or Nippon Ishin can survive once their leaders lose influence, because the popularity of both rests on their founders and leaders, namely Hashimoto, Watanabe and Eda.

According to Narita, neither offers a viable alternative to Abe’s goals, which include deregulation, a weaker safety net for society’s most vulnerable and heavy investment in public works projects.

The SDP, in past decades when it was the Japan Socialist Party, was a strong counterweight to the LDP by opposing the U.S.-Japan military alliance and the Self-Defense Forces. But the JSP never offered a viable two-party system. The closest Japan came to having a strong center-left party to check the LDP was when the DPJ came to power in 2009. But with the LDP at the time the top opposition force, the DPJ’s fortunes waned up to its December ouster.

“The DPJ has a center-left political ideology focused on distribution of wealth to act against the LDP. But it has to learn from its mistakes and redefine its identity to re-create unity,” Narita said of a party that was rife with defections before its fall.

DPJ President Banri Kaieda is having a hard time consolidating his power without support from heavyweights like Noda or former leader Katsuya Okada.

One of the lessons the party has to learn is that it needs a coherent policy that all members buy. Instead, many are scrambling to profess their stances on collective self-defense while Kaieda tries to hammer out one for the party by the end of the year.

Ex-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano of the DPJ published a paper last month arguing against reinterpreting the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution so Japan can engage in collective self-defense. But Noda said in a visit to Washington last month that Japan should exercise the right if necessary for the sake of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

“These actions cast the impression that the DPJ is still divided, which is not good for the party’s image,” a DPJ lawmaker said.