In what could be the start of an opposition party realignment, Nippon Ishin no Kai and the Democratic Party for the People have begun to jointly push for a parliamentary debate on revising the Constitution, which both they and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party favor.

On Tuesday, Nippon Ishin Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba and DPP Secretary-General Kazuya Shimba agreed to accelerate the debate over constitutional revision by seeking discussions with other parties in an Upper House committee studying the issue.

“People are saying the Diet is not functioning and that Diet members are not doing their jobs. The first thing that needs to change are the Diet members themselves,” Baba said Tuesday, explaining the reasons why the two parties have decided to cooperate — albeit at this point only in areas they agree on.

“We’re breaking away from the traditional framework of opposition parties,” said Shimba.

According to a Kyodo poll released Thursday, Nippon Ishin’s support rate is now 13%, the highest among the opposition parties. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has a 10.7% support rate, followed by the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) at 3.9% and the DPP at 2.7%. The poll also showed that 52.2% of respondents approved of movement toward a third force in the opposition that is separate from the CDP.

In the short run, numbers as much as ideology appear to have brought the two parties together. Nippon Ishin has 41 seats in the Lower House, nine short of the 50 needed in order to submit bills in the Lower House budget committee, while the DPP has 11 members. Cooperation, therefore, allows both parties to clear the 50-seat hurdle.

Democratic Party for the People Secretary-General Kazuya Shimba (second from left) and his Nippon Ishin no Kai counterpart, Nobuyuki Baba (third from left), meet at the legislature in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO
Democratic Party for the People Secretary-General Kazuya Shimba (second from left) and his Nippon Ishin no Kai counterpart, Nobuyuki Baba (third from left), meet at the legislature in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO

In the long run, in order to revise the Constitution, a two-thirds supermajority is needed in the Lower and Upper Houses, and the issue then needs to be put to a national referendum. Currently, the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito hold 294 of the 465 Lower House seats. If Nippon Ishin’s 41 seats and the 11 held by the DPP were added, there would be 346 seats held by parties that have indicated they are at least in favor of constitutional revision, well above the 310 needed for a supermajority.

The CDP and JCP, which oppose revising the Constitution, take a cautious stance on the committee debate due to fears that it will accelerate overall discussions on constitutional amendment.

While Baba acknowledged there are differences between the two parties on what kinds of constitutional revisions are needed, both agree a parliamentary debate on the issue of revision itself is necessary. Shimba said the DPP recognizes there are differences, but said that is not a reason to avoid debate in the Diet.

Two areas both parties mention in their separate plans for constitutional revision are an emergency clause to deal with national emergencies, such as a coronavirus-like pandemic, and clearer language on autonomy for local governments.

But Kenneth Mori McElwain, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, says that while both Nippon Ishin and the DPP are pro-constitutional reform, or at least interested in the matter, they have yet to agree on what to amend. At the moment, the talks appear to be more about party politics in other areas.

“Ishin cares about expanding public education and fiscal decentralization. The DPP is mostly interested in institutional reforms such as establishing a dedicated constitutional court and national emergency provisions,” he said. “It’s not clear to me how the LDP would prioritize these topics. But the LDP can’t ignore them either, since they need Ishin and/or the DPP to obtain a two-thirds majority.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits Nippon Ishin no Kai's Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba in parliament on Wednesday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits Nippon Ishin no Kai’s Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba in parliament on Wednesday. | KYODO

The LDP has laid out four proposals: recognition of the Self Defense Forces, expanded free education, a better system to deal with national emergencies and the end of a controversial measure to treat two prefectures as one electoral district in order to address disparities in the weight of votes created by population differences. The LDP’s emergency proposal overlaps with the DPP’s, while the one about education is similar to Nippon Ishin’s.

In addition to calling for a parliamentary debate on constitutional revision, Nippon Ishin and the DPP plan to jointly submit two bills in the legislature. The first, part of the DPP’s platform, stipulates that if the price at the pump for gasoline climbs to over ¥160 per liter for three consecutive months, the gasoline tax will be reduced.

A second bill, one long favored by Nippon Ishin, calls for a 20% cut to lawmakers’ salaries.

While the two parties have reached agreement on the two separate bills, their party heads appear to have different levels of enthusiasm for future tie-ups.

Nippon Ishin leaders such as Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said earlier this week that they welcome further cooperation with the DPP in parliament. But DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki was more cautious.

“We’ve agreed on those two bills. But in terms of other bills for other areas and the form cooperation might take, that remains undecided,” Tamaki told reporters Thursday, adding that more decisions would be made after the DPP decides its new senior executives later this month.

“For now, I think DPP and (Nippon) Ishin see constitutional revision as a way to siphon off conservative votes from the LDP, and to also clearly differentiate themselves from the Constitutional Democratic Party,” McElwain said.

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