The Democratic Party in disarray

Barely a year after it was reorganized by merging another party, the Democratic Party seems to be in crisis. The recent revolt of two of its leading conservatives — one leaving the leading opposition party and the other resigning as its deputy chief by challenging the party leadership’s policies — and the defection of one candidate after another who had been tapped to run on the party’s ticket in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July testify to the failure of DP chief Renho to rally the party members around her. The dismal popular support for the DP in media surveys continues to bode ill for the party’s turnaround since its crushing fall from power five years ago.

Former Vice Defense Minister Akihisa Nagashima bolted from the DP ostensibly in protest of the party leadership’s pursuit of campaign cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party, while the party’s deputy chief, Goshi Hosono, who had endorsed Renho in the party leadership race in September, quit the position and criticized the DP’s policy of opposing amending the Constitution under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s watch.

Campaign cooperation with other opposition parties and how to address the question of constitutional amendment, which is being pushed for by the Abe administration and its allies, are both issues that the DP cannot continue to evade as the opposition leader. The DP lawmakers’ open challenge to the party leadership points to a lack of effort by Renho to build a consensus on these key questions through discussions among its members. She needs to take the revolt as a wake-up call and endeavor to rebuild unity among the party’s lawmakers and set a clear path for its revival.

Currently the DP is not viewed as a party that poses a credible challenge to Abe’s ruling coalition. The latest Kyodo News poll put its popular support at a meager 6.7 percent — less than one-fifth of the 39.9 percent for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Even declines in support for Abe’s Cabinet and the LDP do not lead to increase in support for the DP, meaning that people do not see it as an alternative. The DP’s poor performance has contributed to the ruling coalition’s dominance in elections and in Diet proceedings, in which potentially damaging political setbacks do not put a significant dent in popular support for the Abe administration.

The DP’s dismal prospect has led its candidates to desert the party ahead of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July. Of the 36 candidates that the DP had fielded to run on its tickets for the assembly seats, 13 — including six incumbents — have tendered their resignation from the party, with some of them likely to seek support from a local party effectively led by popular Gov. Yuriko Koike. Yet another election setback in the July race in Tokyo — Renho’s home turf — would put her leadership of the party in further doubt.

The questions that were raised by Nagashima and Hosono have indeed been simmering as potential sources of division within the party but have largely been unaddressed. Comprising lawmakers from a broad spectrum from conservative to left-wing, the DP has not been able to take a clear stand on the issue of amending the Constitution — except to say that it opposes an amendment under Abe’s watch — because of the presence of both proponents and opponents of an amendment. Hosono, who contributed his own draft amendment to a monthly magazine in early April, said in an interview with Kyodo News the DP should “depart from the argument of merely opposing an amendment under the Abe administration” and hold discussions on its own ideas about the Constitution itself.

Hosono also expressed his doubts about the DP’s pursuit of campaign cooperation with the JCP, saying that “a party that cannot take a realistic approach to diplomatic and national security issues is not qualified to take charge of the government.” Despite the partial success of the DP’s campaign cooperation with other opposition forces, including the JCP, in the Upper House election last July — in which the opposition forces effectively fielded joint candidates instead of competing with each other — Renho’s leadership has taken a lukewarm position toward the campaign tie-up with the JCP in the next Lower House election, apparently in view of opposition from among the DP’s conservative ranks as well as its main organized supporter, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

Campaign cooperation with other opposition parties may be the only practical way for the DP to contend with Abe’s coalition in national elections. But that is also proof of the poor popular support for the DP itself. The DP leadership needs to take the revolt and defection of its members seriously and take actions to rebuild the party before it’s too late.