The reelection of Yorihisa Matsuno as chief of Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) may help accelerate moves toward an eventual merger of what’s left of the party with the Democratic Party of Japan in the latest wave of realignment of the opposition camp. Consolidating the splintered opposition camp would put it in a better position to challenge the dominance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition. But the success of the consolidation would depend on whether voters view it as making sense from a policy perspective rather than a move that only serves the interests of the lawmakers.
The day after winning the lackluster party leadership race on Sunday, Matsuno met with DPJ chief Katsuya Okada and agreed that the two parties should form a joint parliamentary group by the end of this month. This move is deemed to be the first step toward a closer alliance and possible merger ahead of the Upper House election next year.
Although the two parties have been in talks for an alliance since September, the significance of the move has been discounted with the breakup of Ishin no To into followers of Osaka Mayor Hashimoto, who in August quit the party he co-founded just last year, and lawmakers aligned with the party leadership led by Matsuno. Though the party had 53 Diet members when it was created in September 2014, the breakup and the defection of Hashimoto loyalists have left the party with only 26 lawmakers and it now trails behind the Japanese Communist Party as the third-largest opposition force.
The road map toward a DPJ-Ishin merger remains unclear. Matsuno rules out Ishin’s absorption by the DPJ, proposing instead that both the DPJ and Ishin disband and create a brand new party — an idea that has either been rebuffed or frowned upon by DPJ leaders. But the chances of Ishin lawmakers’s survival in future elections are uncertain if the party stays as it is. Of its 21 Lower House members, 17 managed to keep their seats in the last election in December 2014 on the proportional representation ticket of the party — then headed by the popular leader Hashimoto — after failing to win the races in single-seat constituencies. A Kyodo News poll in late November put the party’s popular support at a mere 1.1 percent — trailing far behind the 5.1 percent claimed by the new party that Hashimoto created after leaving Ishin. Since the Ishin members can no longer depend on Hashimoto’s popular appeal, their chances in the next election may be dim.
Meanwhile, the DPJ has yet to regain the degree of voter support it once enjoyed following its crushing fall from power in 2012. Though still the largest opposition party, the DPJ has failed to turn around its fortunes in national elections. In the Miyagi Prefectural Assembly election in October, the DPJ trailed behind the JCP in the number of seats won — an outcome that, Okada admitted, indicates the party’s failure to be the choice of voters who are critical of Abe administration and its policies. Even when the popular approval ratings of Abe’s Cabinet plunged this summer after the ruling coalition rammed the government’s contentious security legislation through the Diet, popular support for the DPJ barely picked up.
The “Ishin” brand party launched by Hashimoto gained a nationwide presence as the “third pole” political force in the 2012 Lower House election just as the DPJ lost its three-year grip on power and Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party returned to the helm of government. But the path of the party — an amalgam of lawmakers from diverse backgrounds and policies drawn to Hashimoto’s strong popularity — has since been marked by breakups and mergers, and internal discord over policy issues and its position vis-a-vis the ruling coalition and the opposition camp remained after it assumed its current shape last year — until finally Hashimoto’s departure triggered its latest split.
The remaining Ishin no To lawmakers may need the alliance and eventual merger with the DPJ to ensure their own survival. The DPJ might welcome the alliance with Ishin as a way to boost its power — though together they would still be dwarfed by Abe’s LDP-Komeito alliance. But for their possible union to make sense to the voters, they would need to strike a common ground on key policies. Ishin no To once gained popular support by criticizing both the DPJ and the LDP and presenting itself as an alternative to them. The current Ishin members include former DPJ lawmakers — Matsuno among them — who defected from the DPJ just as its fall from power was deemed certain in the 2012 election and joined forces with Hashimoto.
The opposition parties need to be more united if they are going to give voters a meaningful alternative to Abe’s ruling coalition. Campaign cooperation should not be ruled out if it’s going to boost their election chances. But if the DPJ and Ishin no To are going to merge, they need to explain why and what policies they plan to jointly present to voters, who must be growing tired of political parties’ marriages of convenience.
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