Moves are finally afoot for the opposition parties to pursue broad campaign cooperation for the Upper House election this summer to boost their chances against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition, which has won landslides against the splintered opposition in all national elections since it returned to power in 2012. Long-stalled talks between the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) also made rapid progress this week, making a merger likely next month.
Members of the Abe administration and the ruling alliance are quick to denounce the opposition’s moves as a marriage of convenience without a cause. To answer such criticism and make their joint campaign more effective and substantial, the opposition parties need to come up with a common policy platform — even one that may be limited in scope — that makes sense for voters.
It was again Japanese Communist Party chief Kazuo Shii who took the initiative. Shii said last week that the JCP was ready to withdraw its candidates in single-member Upper House constituencies where it competes with the DPJ under certain conditions, so as to enhance the chances of an opposition win against Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance. The outcomes in 32 constituencies, which have one seat each up for grabs in the triennial election that chooses half the Upper House seats, are expected to sway the overall poll results.
Following a meeting of their top leaders on Friday, the secretaries-general of five opposition parties — the DPJ, JCP, Ishin, the Social Democratic Party and Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party) — agreed in their meeting Tuesday that they will create a liaison panel to coordinate their candidacies for the Upper House election and explore possible cooperation in the next Lower House general election.
The records of recent national elections make it clear that a divided opposition is no match for the dominant ruling alliance. In the last 2013 Upper House election, when the ruling alliance won 51 of the 73 seats contested in electoral districts, the LDP swept 29 of the 31 constituencies that each had one seat up for grabs. A Kyodo News projection based on the votes won by each party in the 2014 Lower House races shows that a joint candidate fielded by the five parties discussing campaign cooperation stands to win eight of the 32 constituencies and put up close contests against LDP contenders in eight others.
The JCP holds the key to campaign cooperation, since the party claims a solid base of loyal supporters in many constituencies that alone would not be large enough to elect a JCP candidate but would likely be of great help to DPJ candidates fighting otherwise uphill battles against the LDP. The JCP planned to field its own candidates in 29 of the 32 constituencies in question — and potentially compete with candidates either fielded or supported by the DPJ in 21 districts — but Shii said on Monday that a significant number of those candidates will withdraw from the race in the event a joint opposition campaign is carried out.
Before holding the talks with other parties for campaign cooperation in the Upper House election, the JCP also agreed to withdraw its candidate scheduled to run in the Lower House by-election in the Hokkaido No. 5 district and instead support a candidate jointly endorsed by the DPJ and two other parties. The April 24 Hokkaido race — to fill the vacancy left by the death last year of former Lower House Speaker Nobutaka Machimura — is being closely watched as a precursor for the Upper House election. Here again, the number of votes won by the DPJ and JCP combined in the district in the 2014 election trail close behind that for the LDP’s Machimura.
The momentum for a joint opposition campaign has been slow since Shii first proposed the idea last fall of an opposition coalition government on a single issue of scrapping Abe’s security legislation enacted in September — and jointly opposed by the five parties. Caution against a campaign tieup with the JCP has been particularly strong — and still is — among conservative ranks of the DPJ, who said a joint campaign with the Communists would alienate the party’s conservative supporters and do more harm than good. The momentum picked up after Shii last week effectively shelved his idea of an opposition coalition. The five parties also jointly submitted a bill to scrap the security legislation to the Diet last week.
The opposition parties have reasons to be worried about their prospect. A recent Kyodo News poll showed that popular approval ratings of Abe’s Cabinet plunged due to a series of recent scandals and gaffes involving members of his administration and the LDP. But while support for the LDP also dipped, support for the DPJ fell slightly as well. Criticism of the Abe administration does not translate into any significant increase in support for the opposition parties, whose combined approval rate is far short of even half that of the LDP. After various differences threatened to derail their union, DPJ and Ishin no To leaders are finally about to reach a deal on their merger. But the same Kyodo survey shows that voters don’t expect much from a DPJ-Ishin merger.
A divided and weak opposition camp makes national election results predictable and deprives voters of a viable alternative to the ruling bloc. It’s clear that the opposition parties need to unite to boost their chances in the upcoming elections. But they must to let voters know what policies their candidates will pursue if they win.