The Democratic Party’s regular convention held last Sunday — the first since Renho took over as its chief in September — highlighted the difficulties confronting the No. 1 opposition party as it struggles to win back popular support lost since its crushing fall from power in 2012. Renho’s attempt and failure to flesh out the party’s policy on phasing out nuclear energy exposed differences among its members and with its organized supporters. She has yet to clarify what the party intends to do in campaign cooperation with other forces — which is viewed as vital for the opposition camp to face up to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dominant ruling coalition.
As it is, the DP is far from its eventual goal of resurrecting itself as a contender for governing power. Unless it can develop concrete policy programs that clearly pit itself against the Abe administration and win the hears and minds of voters, the party will hardly be able to pose a meaningful threat to the ruling coalition.
Renho was elected DP chief in September to succeed Katsuya Okada mainly on the strength of her popularity as lawmaker. The more than 1 million votes she collected in her Tokyo constituency in the last two Upper House elections had given hope to DP members that she would help the party regain votes in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election this summer and in the next Lower House election. But things are not developing as they had hoped. The party continues to trail far behind Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in terms of popular support in media opinion polls.
What happened in the party convention symbolizes the difficulties that Renho and the party are facing. Renho had tried — and failed — to adopt a target of ending the nation’s reliance on nuclear power by 2030, by clarifying the party’s current goal of a nuclear phaseout by the end of the 2030s. Instead, she merely said the party will draft legislation to move up a nuclear phaseout — without specifying a deadline. A clear deadline of 2030 would have given the party an effective tool to differentiate it from the Abe administration, which has been pushing to restart reactors since the 2011 Fukushima disaster and views nuclear energy as a key “baseload” source of power supply.
Behind the DP’s failure to adopt a clear-cut policy on nuclear energy — which added doubts about Renho’s leadership — was the opposition by Rengo (the Japanese Trade Union Confederation), the nation’s largest umbrella labor organization, which counts the pro-nuclear Federation of Electric Power Related Industry Worker’s Unions among its influential members, as well as the opposition from among the party’s lawmakers themselves who support nuclear energy. Although Rengo is the leading organized supporter of the DP, the party’s timidity toward the organization will only deepen an impression among voters that it is a servant to labor interests and is not ready to meet the needs and wishes of people in general. The party is in serious need of rebuilding its support base among the general public.
Given the ruling coalition’s grip on power and the Lower House election system in which single-seat constituencies play a decisive role, campaign cooperation among opposition forces is seen as inevitable if they are to change the current political landscape. Again, the DP convention failed to send a clear message on this point. Although the party’s action plan for 2017 said it will “comprehensively consider” such cooperation from the viewpoint of maximizing the number of winners, Renho made no mention of campaign tie-ups with other opposition forces — apparently in deference to Rengo and some of the party’s Diet members opposing cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party. No officials from the JCP, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party — the prospective partners for campaign cooperation — were invited as guests to the convention.
Campaign cooperation among the four parties proved a partial success in the Upper House election last summer that dented the LDP-Komeito’s sweep of key electoral districts. But since little progress has been made to coordinate candidates in the next Lower House election, the parties now appear likely to compete with each other in more than 210 single-seat districts, which would only serve to benefit the ruling coalition. A logical path for the DP would be to push harder for campaign cooperation.
Conspicuously lacking from the DP’s action plan was an overall economic policy that could provide an alternative to Abenomics. This indicates the DP’s lack of will to challenge the ruling coalition in earnest. The raison d’etre of an opposition leader without such will would be in doubt.
Lack of unity among its members was long deemed the party’s key weakness since its predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan, was at the helm of government from 2009 to 2012. The DPJ’s reign was marked by serious infighting among its lawmakers on policy and other matters, which eventually led to its division and fall from power. The indecision exhibited at the latest DP convention appeared to suggest that the current leadership led by Renho has yet to rebuild solidarity among its members, without which its turnaround as a robust opposition party, much less a viable contender for governing force, seems out of reach.