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Sunday’s general election saw a crushing defeat for the effort by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Japanese Communist Party to field unified candidates in single-seat electoral districts, raising questions as to whether they should continue with such a strategy in future elections.

Despite the unprecedented move to get behind one candidate in as many electoral districts as possible in order to avoid splitting the opposition vote, the CDP finished with 96 seats, down from 110 before the election. The JCP won 10 seats, down from 12 before the election.

The worse-than-expected results shook CDP officials. The party’s leader, Yukio Edano, apologized for the results Monday morning, saying he will decide his own fate by Tuesday. CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama said he would resign his post in order to take responsibility for the losses.

“The results were extremely disappointing, and I didn’t think we’d end up seeing a decrease in the number of seats,” Fukuyama said.

JCP leader Kazuo Shii, meanwhile, was more upbeat, saying that, even though the parties failed in their quest to oust the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition, “I want to try for a second and third time.”

The CDP and the JCP, along with two smaller parties — Reiwa Shinsengumi and the Social Democratic Party — had a pre-election agreement to run unified candidates in single-seat constituencies. Separately, the CDP teamed up with the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) in other districts, meaning that overall such candidates ran in 213 out of 289 seats.

Of those electoral districts, however, 139 were won by a ruling coalition-backed candidate, while unified opposition candidates were only victorious in 59. The remainder went to the right-leaning Nippon Ishin no Kai and independent candidates.

A man distributes the party leaflets before Yukio Edano, the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, speaks to voters on Saturday, a day before voting for the Lower House election, near Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. | REUTERS
A man distributes the party leaflets before Yukio Edano, the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, speaks to voters on Saturday, a day before voting for the Lower House election, near Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. | REUTERS

One of the biggest issues with the cooperation strategy was the political differences between the CDP and the JCP, especially on the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces and Japan’s security treaty with the United States, which undermined the tie-up in the eyes of voters.

Masato Kamikubo, a political scientist at Ritsumeikan University, said the CDP and JCP had two problems in particular.

“The CDP and JCP were desperate to campaign together in order to get the necessary seats to take control of the government. As a result of this desperation, they ended up discarding the most important task of a political party — the formulation of policies — leaving that task to an outside organization called Shimin Rengo,” Kamikubo said.

That group, known in English as the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism, had the leaders of the four parties sign a joint policy pledge committing them to working together on a number of issues. These included abolishing the national security and secrecy legislation passed under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, canceling the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base within Okinawa Prefecture and ending Japan’s reliance on coal and nuclear power.

The DPP did not sign, citing policy differences.

What also undermined the cooperation effort was the opposition of Rengo, the nation’s largest labor organization and the CDP’s main supporter, which has traditionally distanced itself from the JCP.

“There is no way we can tolerate (the JCP) cooperating outside the framework of the Cabinet,” Tomoko Yoshino, chairman of Rengo, said in a news conference on Oct. 7, referring to the JCP’s stated intention not to join the Cabinet if the CDP formed a government.

Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii (left) at the party's headquarters in Tokyo on Sunday night | KYODO
Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii (left) at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Sunday night | KYODO

In addition, voters still remember the bitter years when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which many CDP lawmakers had belonged to, took office more than a decade ago.

“It collapsed following internal divisions over policies and confusion among its membership,” Kamikubo said.

Edano and Fukuyama were senior members of the DPJ, which lost to the LDP in the December 2012 Lower House election and split into smaller parties afterwards.

But still, Sunday’s election led to a close race in many constituencies, something that would not have happened were it not for the electoral cooperation among the opposition.

“In particular, there were 31 electoral districts in which our unified candidate lost by fewer than 10,000 votes,” Fukuyama said.

In fact, the strategy did produce two dramatic victories.

LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari became the first-ever sitting party No. 2 to lose their seat after he was beaten in the electoral district of Kanagawa No. 13 by the CDP’s Hideshi Futori. Although he gained a seat via the proportional representation system, his loss sent shockwaves through the LDP, and Amari has told Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that he is ready to resign his post.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano in Tokyo on Monday | KYODO
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano in Tokyo on Monday | KYODO

The second LDP veteran to fall to a unified opposition candidate was Nobuteru Ishihara, who lost his Tokyo No. 8 seat to the CDP’s Harumi Yoshida. Unlike Amari, Ishihara failed to gain a seat under proportional representation.

Ishihara had served as the party’s secretary-general between 2010 and 2012 while it was in opposition. Ishihara also had several posts, including as transport and environment minister, after the LDP returned to power in 2012. He heads his own faction, which had 10 members before the election, but whose fate is now uncertain.

Amari’s loss, experts say, may have had less to do with the strength of the unified opposition in his district and more to do with the fact that, as secretary-general, he spent much of the campaign traveling to other districts on behalf of other candidates. He only spent a significant amount of time in his home district late last week when it became clear the race with Yoshida was closer than expected.

The CDP and JCP would have lost even more districts had they not cooperated, said Kentaro Yamamoto, a political science professor at Hokkai-Gakuen University. Nonetheless, some soul-searching is in order for the larger CDP. That is especially true now as it turns its attention to the next major national election, for the Upper House, which is to be held by next summer.

“The CDP will need to fundamentally rethink its policy positions in order to be seen as the alternative to the LDP. I think the first priority is to build up the party’s strength so it will not be influenced by the JCP,” he said.

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