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When Renho was elected head of the Democratic Party in September, there were hopes that with the popular lawmaker in charge the largest opposition party might regain its support among voters. Such hopes have quickly been dashed. According to the latest Kyodo News poll, the DP’s popular support rating stands at a miserable 8 percent — trailing far behind the nearly 45 percent claimed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The cause of the DP’s dismal support rate is clear. The party has failed to give a clear message to the people on what kind of government it seeks to establish and how it would accomplish this goal. Since the Abe administration and the LDP-Komeito alliance hold a dominant grip on power, the DP urgently needs to present voters with a viable alternative and the path to achieve it. This is all the more important given the lingering speculation that Abe will dissolve the Lower House for another snap election sometime soon.

If the DP wants to tackle the LDP-Komeito bloc, a simple political calculation shows that the party has no other choice but to cooperate with other opposition forces — including the Japanese Communist Party — in one way or another in the next election. Still, the DP continues to take an ambivalent attitude toward such cooperation, since it is sandwiched between the JCP, which calls for solid election campaign tie-ups as a step toward forming an opposition-led governing coalition, and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), which is the DP’s main organized supporter but opposes creating a coalition that would include the JCP. Rengo doesn’t even want the DP to engage in campaign cooperation with the JCP.

Renho is positive about talking with the JCP about the coordination of candidates in specific constituencies but rejects the idea of her party and the JCP mutually supporting each other’s candidates. She also has made it clear that the DP will not sit at the same table with the JCP to discuss the creation of a coalition government.

In contrast, the JCP’s position is more straightforward. After the Abe administration rammed its security legislation through the Diet last year, it urged the opposition forces to seek to establish what it called a “people’s coalition government” for the sole purpose of scrapping the legislation. It agreed to shelve part of its policy platform by noting that under such a coalition government, the party would maintain the Japan-U.S. security alliance and utilize the Self-Defense Forces when necessary. Last month, the JCP proposed that the opposition parties work together to build a governing coalition that would address broader issues, including opposing an amendment to the Constitution, halting construction of a new U.S. military facility in Okinawa to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, rectifying the rich-poor gap and eliminating poverty.

Rengo’s vehement opposition to campaign cooperation and a possible coalition with the JCP stems from the history of labor unions under its wing being in confrontation with the unions close to the JCP. Rikio Kozu, the head of Rengo (whose 6.86 million members make it the nation’s largest umbrella labor organization), says its vision of the nation is different from that of the JCP and rules out cooperation with the JCP or JCP-affiliated groups in a Lower House election, in which the choice of government is at stake.

Rengo’s presence also casts a shadow over the DP’s attempt to work out a timeline for its policy of seeking to abolish nuclear power generation by the 2030s, which it advocated when it was in power after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and may still win support from many voters. The pro-nuclear power Federation of Electric Power Related Industry Workers Unions is an influential member of Rengo. In consideration of Rengo’s position, the DP accepts the restart of nuclear power plants under certain conditions. The JCP says that opposing the restart of nuclear plants should be included in a common opposition policy platform, citing the persistently strong public concern over safety of nuclear power.

Rengo’s influence was also evident — in a negative way — in the Lower House by-elections in Tokyo and Fukuoka in October. Candidates from the DP ran based on an agreement among the opposition parties but were roundly defeated. The DP holds that it will not engage in reciprocal support for candidates between it and the JCP, will not accept JCP support for its own candidates, will not work out a common policy program with the JCP and will not hold street campaigns side by side with JCP officials.

Compared with the JCP, the DP has failed to show voters what it wants to do and how it plans to accomplish it. Leaving aside the question of whether the path presented by the JCP is plausible, the DP’s half-hearted position toward an opposition alliance leaves many wondering where the party is headed.

It apparently fears that the LDP-Komeito bloc will denounce its cooperation with the JCP as an unprincipled tie-up in pursuit of votes. If so, it should present a convincing vision for a future government backed by concrete policy proposals and an explicit campaign strategy — with or without cooperating with the JCP — to win back voter support. The DP should not be bound by Rengo’s influence in doing that.

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