Reference | FYI

Opposition merger

Could merger talks finally produce a credible opposition force in Japan?

Japanese voters' choices might actually grow if bickering parties coalesce into viable challenger to LDP

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

With the close of the extraordinary Diet session on Dec. 9, some of the largest opposition parties once again entered talks about merging before year’s end, with an eye toward increasing their seats in the next general election. Here’s a look at the talks and what they might mean for Japan’s political scene in 2020.

Which opposition parties are talking?

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Party for the People and the Social Democratic Party are the three main parties discussing a merger.

Of the 465 seats in the powerful Lower House, the CDP, DPP, SDP and like-minded independents have 120. In the 245-seat Upper House, these parties and their allies, which are considered center-left, have 61.

The parties have been cooperating in the Diet by coordinating during question time, where the time allotted to each party to grill the prime minister and other officials depends on its strength in the given chamber.

While it was the Japanese Communist Party that originally brought up the government’s pricey annual cherry blossom-viewing party, leading to a full-blown scandal, the other parties were united in hammering Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on the issue. They also coordinated in questioning two Cabinet ministers who resigned.

If they cooperated in the Diet, why talk about merging if the session is over?

There are two reasons why the parties are considering a formal tie-up. First, political parties are eligible for state subsidies. These are doled out in proportion to the number of seats a party held on Jan. 1 each year.

A September report by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications showed a total of ¥31.5 billion was paid to nine political parties in 2018. Of this, the DPP received ¥5.2 billion, the CDP ¥3.6 billion and the SDP ¥375 million.

By contrast, the Liberal Democratic Party raked in ¥17.6 billion — or 56 percent — while coalition partner Komeito got ¥3 billion. Merging before Dec. 31 would mean the new party would get more or less the same amount of money both of the parties would have gotten separately, but under one party head and leadership structure instead.

The second reason also has to do with 2020. With the Abe administration embroiled in scandal over the destruction of the guest list for the cherry blossom party and questions surrounding the true cost of a dinner held for Abe supporters the night before, as well as the two ministers’ resignations, rumors of a snap election early next year persist. The opposition parties apparently feel a combined force would have a better chance at the polls.

What are the obstacles to forming a new party by the end of the year?

The main obstacle is the same one that has stymied past merger attempts: fundamental policy differences — especially between the CDP and DPP.

Though similar in many ways, there are several issues on which they are divided. The CDP has called for completely ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, while the DPP, whose members receive a lot of support from unions connected to the industry, has been far more cautious.

There are also some differences over same-sex marriage, with the DPP more cautious than the CDP about legally recognizing it.

But the parties’ different stances on constitutional revision could prove to be the make-or-break issue, especially as Abe continues to make holding a national referendum on the issue a top priority before his scheduled departure as LDP president in September 2021.

While the CDP has firmly opposed the prime minister’s efforts, some members of the DPP have views on revision that are more in line with Abe’s than the CDP’s.

Forging a joint policy on this issue before Dec. 31 will be a difficult challenge.

If they manage to overcome their differences, how well might they do in a national election?

That depends on a number of factors, starting with how well they can cooperate in electoral districts, especially single-seat districts where there are sitting candidates in the CDP and DPP who would have to compete for one officially endorsed seat after the merger.

In addition, voters are likely to be skeptical of the parties’ ability to get along in the Diet, and some supporters could be upset their party merged with one they disagree with.

In the Kochi gubernatorial election in November, a candidate backed by the ruling bloc beat the one backed by all of the major opposition parties, including the JCP.

Both the CDP and DPP have repeatedly said that the understanding of their own supporters at the local level must be gained before a formal merger can take place.

What is the JCP’s position and how might it affect a national election?

The JCP says it wants to cooperate with the parties in their quest to unseat the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition.

In past elections, the JCP has fielded its own candidates rather than cooperate with other parties, often splitting the anti-LDP vote.

Whether the JCP would agree not to field candidates in districts where the new opposition party is competing, or officially support the new party’s candidates in such instances, is unclear.

Given philosophical differences and past lack of cooperation between the parties’ supporters at the local level, how effective any cooperation between the JCP and the new party would be during a campaign remains a key question.

What has the LDP’s reaction to the merger talks been like?

Earlier this month, LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, a possible candidate to replace Abe, said the opposition’s merger talks seemed to be turning into a revival of the old Democratic Party (Minshinto), which lasted from 2016 to 2018 and was wracked by internal dissent over the same kinds of policy issues the CDP and DPP are having trouble agreeing on.

Many of its members split off before the 2017 Lower House election for the parties that are now the CDP and DPP.

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