The Democratic Party of Japan and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) have chosen a new name for the main opposition force that will emerge with their merger later this month — supposedly to give their union a fresh restart. Whether the new Minshin To party — tentatively called the Democratic Innovation Party in English — can regain enough confidence of voters as a viable force to compete with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dominant ruling coalition is far from clear. That the two parties had to sound out popular opinion in separate surveys to pick up the new name seems indicative of a lack of confidence in their own identity and future.
The way the DPJ and Ishin are merging in itself is a product of compromise. Technically, the DPJ will be absorbing Ishin, now reduced to the third-largest opposition party after the Japanese Communist Party following the departure of its founder, former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, and his loyalists last fall. However, DPJ leaders agreed to have a new name for the merged force — reportedly in deference to the demands of Ishin members that their union should look like a merger of equals, even though the DPJ dwarfs Ishin in terms of the number of Diet members. There were also calls within the DPJ itself that the party should change its name to shed the negative image associated with its failures while it was in power from 2009 to 2012.
Many DPJ members, along with its key organized supporter, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), are said to have insisted that the new name should retain key elements of the current name. Ishin leaders called for an entirely new name to give the merged party a fresh look. They eventually held separate surveys to sound out popular preferences among a shortlist of candidates — Rikken Minshu To (which can be translated as Constitutional Democratic Party) proposed by the DPJ, and Minshin To presented by Ishin. The result was that in both surveys, Minshin To was the more favored choice of the respondents. The outcome — which the leaders of both parties decided to follow — may suggest that the negative popular image of the DPJ was more serious than many of its members had thought.
Mergers and breakups are nothing new to the DPJ’s 20-year history since it was originally founded in 1996 by a group of lawmakers led by Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan — who would later become prime ministers when the party took the helm of government. The party was expanded into its current form two years later by incorporating smaller parties created by the breakup of the then largest opposition party Shinshinto. In 2003, the DPJ merged the Liberal Party led by Ichiro Ozawa — the mastermind behind the political realignment of the 1990s.
The DPJ went on to take power from the LDP by winning the 2009 Lower House election. However, a series of blunders by DPJ-led administrations, as well as intra-party divisions that led to the expulsion of Ozawa and the defection of many others, caused a sharp downfall in the popular support of the party until it lost power in a crushing defeat in the 2012 election. The party has since been unable to achieve a significant turnaround in its performance at key elections.
Despite the creation of a major opposition force comprising about 150 Diet members, there seems little popular excitement about the upcoming DPJ-Ishin merger. Media surveys suggest that voters do not expect much from the union of the opposition parties whose combined support trail far behind Abe’s LDP. About half of the roughly 20 Ishin members merging with the DPJ are in fact the ones who once defected from the party in its decline. The ruling coalition was quick to jeer at the merger as a union intended for its members’ survival in the Upper House election this summer. It was in fact the speculation that Abe might also dissolve the Lower House for a snap general election — and catch the opposition camp off guard again — that prompted the two parties to speed up their merger talks.
Former Ishin leader Kenji Eda touts the name Minshin To as one that signifies a party that “moves forward with the people.” The DPJ and Ishin members should not need any jeers from the ruling alliance to realize that a new party name alone will not generate popular support unless it’s backed up by action showing that they are changing in substance. To demonstrate that the new party will be more than just the union of two struggling opposition forces, they need to quickly flesh out a new common policy platform that can provide to voters an alternative to the ruling coalition. That will be their duty as leader of the opposition camp.