Opposition strength through unity

The opposition camp remains splintered and powerless against the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. While two opposition parties are in final talks for a merger, that alone will not change the political landscape in which the LDP-New Komeito alliance dwarfs all other forces in both chambers of the Diet.

The lack of effective pressure or scrutiny by a powerful opposition has enabled the Abe administration to cruise through the implementation of controversial policies, such as its decision last month to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution to enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense.

Lawmakers in the opposition camp need to realize that they have little chance of having any real political impact unless they overcome differences among themselves and put up a more united stand vis-a-vis the ruling bloc.

Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Yui no To (Unity Party) are in the final stages of preparation for their merger next month.

Nippon Ishin leader Toru Hashimoto says that voters will not trust any of the opposition parties — including the Democratic Party of Japan or Nippon Ishin — as long as the parties remain in their current form. He expects the new party to serve as the core of further opposition realignment that hopefully involves some members of the DPJ and Your Party.

Still, Nippon Ishin and Yui no To have yet to narrow their gap on some policy issues, including collective self-defense, nuclear power and an additional hike in the consumption tax. And their union will only create a medium-size force with a total of 52 lawmakers in the two chambers of the Diet.

That would be even smaller than the Diet seats that Nippon Ishin had before its more conservative members including Shintaro Ishihara split earlier this year to form the Party for Future Generations. That party, led by former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma, has made it clear that it supports many of the Abe administration’s policies.

Meanwhile, the DPJ, the largest opposition force with 115 Diet members, remains preoccupied more with rebuilding itself following its devastating losses in the last two national elections than on taking initiatives for regrouping of the opposition camp. DPJ chief Banri Kaieda just managed to fend off mounting calls from within the party to move forward an election to choose a new party leader. However, his leadership remains far from solid, and there is little indication that popular support for the party has bottomed out.

In a Kyodo News survey in early August, only 8 percent of respondents said they support the party, which was in power for three years until 2012, compared with 36 percent who replied they back the LDP.

Kaieda recently floated the idea of the DPJ forming a parliamentary alliance with other opposition forces with which it could cooperate in future Diet election campaign.

Ichiro Ozawa, who bolted from the DPJ before its fall from power in 2012 and now leads a small party Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party), welcomed the idea, noting that the opposition parties are certain to face another crushing defeat in the next Diet election if they remain splintered.

Recent media reports suggest that candidates backed by the opposition parties are likely to clash in 40 to 50 of the 295 constituencies — particularly in urban electoral districts — in the next general election of the Lower House, which must be held by December 2016.

There will be obstacles to overcome to achieve further realignment of the opposition parties, and it will be impossible for all of these parties to reach detailed policy agreements in time for the next national election. Still, they are urged to explore ways to cooperate in both the Diet and in election campaigns, on the basis of a broad common stand on their duties as the opposition to check the power of the ruling bloc and the Abe administration, and to present a clear alternative to the ruling bloc’s policies.

Pursuing such a course of action would be the logical way for them to regain the trust and support of voters.