DPJ needs more than just a merger

The Democratic Party and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) have finally agreed to merge next month, creating a force with roughly 150 lawmakers in both Diet chambers combined. Leaders of the two parties say they will call on members of other opposition parties and independents to join so they can create a force capable of standing up against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dominant ruling coalition. It’s entirely rational for the divided opposition to converge. But they should realize that merely increasing in size — which in itself isn’t much in the case of DPJ-Ishin merger — will not win them back the trust of the voters.

DPJ leader Katsuya Okada and Ishin no To chief Yorihisa Matsuno began the merger talks last August when they were the largest and second-largest opposition forces. But their talks were derailed when the departure of then-Osaka Mayor and Ishin founder Toru Hashimoto and his loyalists to create yet another new force broke up the party. Discussions between the DPJ and what remained of Ishin — which formed a parliamentary alliance in the Lower House in December — have since been hampered by differences over the way they should merge, with the DPJ saying that it should simply absorb the smaller force and Ishin leaders arguing that both parties first disband and then create a new one.

The agreement reached by the DPJ and Ishin leaders last week — in which the DPJ will absorb most of the Ishin members but will also change its name, supposedly to give the impression of creating a new party — appears to be a compromise driven by concern that further delay in their merger talks would leave them again off guard in case Abe should resort to another snap election of the Lower House, possibly along with this summer’s Upper House election. The DPJ-Ishin union will boost their Lower House seats to 93, but their Upper House strength will remain 59, since the five Ishin lawmakers in the upper chamber — all elected in 2010 on the proportional representation ticket of a now-defunct party — are not allowed to move to the DPJ under the Diet Law.

What possible impact the DPJ-Ishin union will have on their performance at the ballot box is far from clear, although momentum is building within the opposition camp for cooperation in the Upper House campaign to avoid again being crushed by the ruling alliance because they’re competing with each other.

Their combined strength will remain far dwarfed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance, which has a two-thirds lock on the Lower House and a majority of the Upper House. A recent Kyodo News survey put popular support for the DPJ at 9.3 percent and for Ishin no To at a mere 1.2 percent, while the rate for the LDP, despite setbacks over a spate of scandals and gaffes involving the administration and LDP lawmakers, stood at 38.1 percent. Osaka Ishin no Kai — the new force created by Hashimoto and his followers that tends to ally with the ruling coalition — claimed support of 4 percent. About 66 percent of the survey respondents said the DPJ and Ishin do not need to merge into one party, far outnumbering the 21 percent who said they should — an outcome that suggests sluggish popular expectations.

Since its crushing fall from power in 2012, the DPJ has not been able to achieve a significant turnaround in its fortunes and electoral performance. Internal divisions that haunted the party while it was in power seemed to affect it even after it was reduced to a much smaller force — both in its policies and on what role it should play in the realignment of the opposition camp, including in its merger talks with Ishin. It’s not clear whether the union with Ishin will change that.

The DPJ says it’s ready to change its name through the merger with Ishin — an idea that has in fact come and gone since its fall from power to give the party a fresh restart, and is still said to be opposed by some members. Top leaders of the two parties reportedly plan to set up a committee to discuss the new name — and may sound out popular opinion to decide whether it should retain the key elements of the DPJ name. That alone looks like a sign that the DPJ has yet to come to grips with what was wrong when the party was in power and how it should rebuild. The DPJ’s problem is not its name, but its failure to convince voters it has mended its ways. A new name will not do the trick.