The lethargic opposition

Momentum for campaign cooperation among opposition parties in this summer’s Upper House election isn’t growing. Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada stresses that the opposition camp must stop Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition and its allies from winning a two-thirds majority in the Upper House — the threshold for initiating an amendment to the Constitution that Abe’s bloc already clears in the Lower House — but does not appear to have a clear prospect on how, after the opposition parties were crushed by the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance in the past three national elections in a row.

As it is, the splintered opposition camp again risks failing to put up a viable alternative to Abe’s ruling coalition and leaving voters with little choice — a familiar picture that should not be repeated, if just for the sake of bringing back some healthy competition in national politics.

Last summer, popular approval ratings of Abe’s Cabinet sharply plunged as his ruling coalition railroaded the contentious security legislation through the Diet, but that did not lead to an increase in public support for the opposition camp, which has effectively been powerless against the LDP-Komeito alliance’s dominant grip on the Diet since the DPJ fell from power in 2012. Public support for the Abe Cabinet has since recovered, leaving the opposition parties trailing far behind his LDP.

Calls by Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party — perhaps the sole opposition force on the upswing in recent elections — for creating an all-opposition coalition on a single cause of abolishing the security legislation, coupled with the party’s offer of a broad campaign cooperation, have been greeted with caution and skepticism by much of the rest of the opposition camp. Many DPJ lawmakers reportedly worry that a tieup with the JCP would alienate their party’s conservative supporters and take more votes away from the party than it gains.

Not that the DPJ, the largest opposition force, sees any other promising scenario for boosting its Diet strength or regaining its lost popular support. It formed a joint parliamentary group with Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) in the Lower House last month — a move that was seen as the first step toward the two parties merging ahead of the Upper House race. But the merger talks make little headway as the DPJ says Ishin should be absorbed into the top opposition party, while Ishin members argue that the two forces should jointly create a new party.

Either way, the political impact of a DPJ-Ishin merger was diminished when the latter was split last fall by the departure of members loyal to founder and former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who have formed yet another new party that now openly pledges cooperation with Abe’s agenda of changing the Constitution. DPJ lawmakers themselves do not appear to have a solid consensus on the party’s way forward, as signs remain of the same old divisions between its conservative ranks and more liberal members.

In the Upper House election this summer, in which half of the chamber’s 242 seats will be contested, the outcome of the races in 32 constituencies with one seat each up for grabs is expected to sway the overall results. Unless the current political climate dramatically changes, it seems obvious that opposition parties will be no match against the LDP-Komeito alliance if they field multiple candidates and split the vote. Both DPJ and JCP leaders say the opposition camp should agree on a single candidate in such electoral districts.

Still, the DPJ remains wary of discussing an outright campaign cooperation with the JCP. Some DPJ leaders seem to hope, though, that the JCP will voluntarily abstain from fielding its candidates in constituencies where the DPJ may stand a chance, leading solid JCP supporters in these electoral districts to vote instead for the DPJ.

There are some moves afoot for the opposition parties to field a joint candidate for the Upper House race. Last month, the DPJ, the JCP, Ishin no To and the Social Democratic Party announced that they will jointly support an independent candidate from the Kumamoto constituency to run against an LDP member seeking re-election — a deal made possible after the JCP canceled a plan to field its own candidate in the district. Talks for similar joint campaigns are also reportedly underway in several other constituencies.

Also seen as a test case for campaign cooperation among the opposition parties is the April by-election in the Hokkaido No. 5 district of the Lower House, left vacant by the death last year of former Lower House Speaker Nobutaka Machimura. While the LDP won the constituency in the last two elections, the votes gained by the opposition parties combined outnumbered the LDP in the 2012 race and were close to the LDP in 2014. The JCP says it’s ready to withdraw its planned candidate if the DPJ can agree on a joint campaign in the by-election. But the prospect of such a joint campaign was clouded when a local political group led by former Lower House member Muneo Suzuki, who holds a sizable influence in Hokkaido, said it would back the LDP’s candidate instead of supporting the JCP-endorsed opposition candidate.

All the while, the opposition parties have not come up with even a minimal common platform for their possible joint election campaign. Without this, their campaign cooperation will likely end up being sporadic and fail to have much of an impact on the overall electoral results. The parties should rethink what they’re aiming for. Instead of merely clamoring against the ruling coalition and its security legislation, they need to present voters with an alternative vision to the Abe administration’s policies.