Campaign cooperation in the Upper House election next year may make sense for opposition parties if they hope to dent the dominant grip on power by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition. The question is whether they can come up with a minimum set of common positions on which they can justify the move with their supporters — and demonstrate to voters what they aim to achieve by working together.
Talks are under way among leaders of the five parties that opposed the security laws the Abe administration jammed through the Diet during the last session — the Democratic Party of Japan, Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), Japanese Communist Party, Social Democratic Party and Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party) — on ways to cooperate next summer to boost their chances against the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance.
Since the DPJ’s fall from power in the 2012 Lower House election, the splintered opposition camp has been dwarfed by Abe’s ruling alliance both in Diet proceedings and electoral performance. They have been no match for the coalition candidates, particularly in most of the winner-take-all races in single-seat districts. The ruling bloc swept 232 seats from the 295 electoral districts at stake in the Lower House election last December. In the last Upper House election in 2013, the LDP won 29 of the 31 constituencies where one seat each was up for grabs. The overall results next year are again expected to hinge on the outcome in the 32 constituencies where one seat each will be up for election.
Basic math shows how it would be rational for the opposition parties to stop competing with each other and coordinate their candidacies to optimize their chances in such races. A simulation by Kyodo News, based on the parties’ performance in the 2014 election, shows that their combined votes would outnumber those of the LDP and Komeito put together in eight of the 32 constituencies, and come within the range of 80 percent or more of the votes for the LDP-Komeito alliance in eight other districts. The calculation also suggests that the opposition parties would have upset the ruling coalition in 74 districts won by the alliance in the 2014 Lower House election if they had jointly fielded a common candidate in each race.
Of course, these are simulations based on past data. The prospect of full-scale campaign cooperation is anything but clear, while there is no guarantee that combining the support bases of two different parties would double their electoral performance.
Still, the opposition parties have reasons to explore ways for a united front against the ruling coalition. When the Abe Cabinet’s approval ratings plunged as the ruling coalition rammed the security legislation through the Diet, support for the opposition parties did not improve significantly. Even though they may not have supported the contentious security bills, voters apparently did not see in the divided opposition camp a viable alternative to Abe’s ruling alliance. If they remain fragmented, the opposition parties may not be taken seriously in the next election.
Leaders of the DPJ and Ishin no To — the largest and second-largest opposition parties — have been discussing closer cooperation, including pursuit of a common policy agenda, possibly with a view to a future merger. However, Ishin no To itself has effectively broken up; founder Toru Hashimoto, who left the party in August and had earlier announced that he would retire from politics when his term as Osaka mayor ends in December, is moving to create a new party with Osaka-based lawmakers and other members loyal to him. It remains uncertain how far or how fast the tieup will proceed between the DPJ and what will be left of Ishin.
It is the JCP — which has historically stayed out (or been left out) of opposition realignment — that has taken the initiative in the latest talks for opposition campaign cooperation. JCP chief Kazuo Shii has urged the other parties to work together on building a tentative coalition aimed exclusively at ousting Abe’s ruling alliance and abolishing the security legislation (for which they would still have to capture a majority in the Lower House after winning the next Upper House race). To achieve that, Shii says the JCP is ready to refrain from fielding its own members in constituencies where the opposition parties can agree on a joint candidate. He has said his party is ready to “freeze” its trademark policy of seeking to abolish the security treaty with the United States in favor of a possible coalition with other parties.
The response of DPJ lawmakers to the proposal for a coalition including the JCP has mostly been negative, with DPJ chief Katsuya Okada saying there are “fairly high hurdles” to creating a coalition with the communists. Some lawmakers have reportedly expressed concern that the prospect of a tieup with the JCP would alienate conservative DPJ voters.
Still, DPJ leaders may be counting on campaign cooperation with the JCP. When the DPJ won a landslide in the 2009 Lower House election and swept to power, the JCP shelved its longtime policy of having its candidates run in almost all constituencies nationwide and instead stuck to about half of the electoral districts. While the JCP’s move was voluntary and not based on an accord with the DPJ, a Kyodo News exit poll showed that in constituencies that did not have a Communist Party candidate, about 70 percent of JCP supporters voted for those running on the DPJ ticket. Since the JCP has small but loyal support bases in a large number of constituencies, their votes would provide significant help for other opposition candidates who otherwise would be facing an uphill battle against those backed by the ruling alliance.
But aside from the question of whether full-scale campaign cooperation is practical, the parties involved would need to see if such a tieup makes sense to the voters as well. Their supporters would be at a loss unless the parties can explain why they’re cooperating with each other and what they want to achieve by forging a joint campaign.
A temporary coalition based on a single issue — killing the security legislation — is one idea, but whether that’s enough to win over voters is a different subject. Whether the proposed campaign cooperation would work — or end up as just a pipe dream — depends on what they can present as a common platform.
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