For weeks, the nation’s two largest opposition parties have been working on a merger, aiming to establish a formidable alternative to the ruling bloc led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of the start of the ordinary Diet session set to begin Monday.
Sources who spoke to The Japan Times, as well as reports citing lawmakers by multiple media outlets, suggest the merger is unlikely to be completed ahead of the session, squandering what many observers see as a golden opportunity for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People to form a united front in the event of a snap election.
Opposition parties have been realigning themselves for years, but so far have been unable to come together — a weakness Abe has used to his advantage. Since he became prime minister in late 2012, his Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito have trounced the opposition in poll after poll.
That a unified front would improve prospects for the opposition seems self-evident, but several factors — including ideological differences, personal grievances, and the failure to appeal to independent voters — appear to have stymied progress toward the goal of consolidation.
Achieving a merger before the start of the year’s first Diet session has been key for the CDP, but the DPP has shown reluctance to be bound by a deadline. In a television program aired Sunday, DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki told NHK, “We’d rather avoid being hasty by making the start of the Diet session, on Jan. 20, as the deadline,” according to a report by the Asahi daily.
With a resolution still unclear, pro-merger members of the DPP are set to meet Monday to try and determine a route forward.
Speaking Thursday in an interview with Kyodo News about the conditions under discussion for the merger, CDP leader Yukio Edano said, “We are already making the best proposal possible, so we aren’t in a situation where they will change through (further) consultations.”
“If (the DPP) can’t come to terms with it, then it can’t be helped,” he added bleakly. “What it will mean is, ‘Let’s do things differently our own separate ways in our respective parties.'”
CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama told reporters Thursday, “We have to get ready (for the upcoming Diet session), so we don’t think it’s a good idea to spend extra time trying to reach a conclusion on a merger.”
Talk of merging the parties didn’t come out of the blue. The proposal built on the prior integration of their parliamentary groups since September.
Distinct from political parties, and with no obligation for members to share a policy platform, such groups are the main units of the legislature. The amount of time allotted for questions in all parliamentary committee deliberation sessions is determined based on their size.
Edano had expressed hopes that combining their political parties by the start of the year’s ordinary Diet session would allow the two parties to make a fresh start. To that end, he has met with Tamaki three times since December to seek middle ground.
But despite Edano’s drive to create one unified opposition party, the gulf between the two appears to have been too wide to overcome.
One difference is political ideology. The CDP, which has more seats in both chambers and a higher approval rating than the DPP, was in favor of achieving a merger by absorbing the DPP.
Composed primarily of left-leaning members, the CDP advocates for progressive policies and the closure of nuclear power plants.
The CDP holds 58 seats in the Lower House and 33 seats in the Upper House, while the DPP occupies 38 seats and 22 seats in the upper and lower chambers, respectively.
In the Upper House election in July last year — the most recent national vote, when half the lawmakers in the house stood for re-election — the CDP secured 17 seats, while the DPP won just six.
Within the DPP, though, there has been division about a merger with the CDP. The DPP has center-to-right members and is cautious of embracing some of its policies, including those on nuclear power.
One key area of leverage the DPP has over the CDP is the amount of party subsidies it has kept in reserve. As of the end of 2018, according to the latest data available to the public, the DPP held ¥4.2 billion. The CDP, in contrast, had just ¥1.1 billion — not necessarily adequate to fight a snap Lower House election.
The DPP has more capital because the party inherited the money from its precursor, the Democratic Party, from which the CDP was also established as a result of a split.
Tamaki told reporters Wednesday evening that nuclear power is among the major policy differences the two sides haven’t been able to reconcile.
The Democratic Party split also caused a headache in the last Upper House election for labor unions, a major supporting block for the opposition. Business interest groups have traditionally backed Abe’s LDP.
When the DP was in existence trade unions unilaterally endorsed it, but in the July 2019 Upper House election the labor union endorsement was split. Center-right unions, whose members consist of workers at private companies, preferred the DPP. Center-left unions, supported mostly by public servants, backed the CDP.
A power struggle is also believed to have been an insurmountable factor. CDP heavyweight Hirotaka Akamatsu was quoted by domestic media earlier this year as saying he’d suggested Edano appoint Tamaki as deputy leader if the two parties unified. Tamaki expressed displeasure about any such move when asked about it during a news conference on Jan. 8.
Tamaki has also resisted Edano’s proposal to keep the CDP as the name for any post-merger political party, according to media reports, and has claimed the merger plan is essentially a CDP takeover attempt focused on plundering DPP funds and membership.
But because some DPP members have been eager to see the two parties combine, the party has had difficulty determining a course of action.
At a gathering of DPP Diet members Wednesday, internal friction was evident. Of the party’s 60 lawmakers, 21 who are concerned they may lose their seats in the next election signed a demand to hold a general meeting, with the intention of moving the merger talks forward despite Tamaki’s wishes.
That meeting is scheduled for Monday, but with the ordinary Diet session set to convene at 1 p.m. it seems unlikely the DPP will be able to wrangle an agreement from its own membership and reach a deal with the CDP before it begins.
Tamaki was indignant over the move from within his party’s membership, said Keisuke Tsumura, DPP’s deputy leader and a six-term Lower House member.
“We should decide to merge first” and then talk about policy, Tsumura said. “In other words, you choose where to get married after you decide to get married.”
The CDP reportedly urged the DPP to make up its mind by Monday.
“I’d appreciate if we could make a decision to merge (the two parties) as early as possible,” the CDP’s Fukuyama said in a news conference Tuesday.
“Amid all this chaos surrounding the Abe administration,” he added, “I think the level of power at the Diet would be different if the opposition parties had come to unite before the session begins. … I think the public’s expectations will cool gradually if we can’t come together soon.”
The public appears to be pessimistic about the possibility of a merger. In the latest poll by NHK, 69 percent of respondents said they had either little or no expectation it will take place.
In the same poll, the approval rating for the CDP was at 5.4 percent while that of the DPP stood at 0.9 percent — both significantly below the LDP’s 40 percent.
“There are plenty of people who are critical of the Abe administration, but (opposition parties) aren’t able to offer an alternative,” said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a political science professor at Toyo University in Tokyo. The public still remembers its deep-seated mistrust of the Democratic Party of Japan, the predecessor of the DP, which was in government from 2009 to 2012, he added.
“They have no backbone to be the alternative,” Yakushiji stressed. “What they are concerned about is maintaining their seats in the Diet, preparing for the elections and figuring out which candidates will run in which districts. … As long as they are doing this, dysfunction in Japanese politics will get worse and public distrust will become apathy.”