Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has been hit by steep declines in the approval ratings of his Cabinet in media polls, which came on the heels of his Liberal Democratic Party’s historic defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race earlier this month. It was Abe’s first loss in key elections since he returned to the government’s helm in 2012. But while the media is abuzz with talk of cracks finally emerging in Abe’s dominant grip on power, what seems to get little attention is the dismal state of the largest opposition Democratic Party, which remains unable to turn popular criticism of the administration into support for the opposition. The DP’s leaders need to face up to this grim reality and take steps for the party to stay relevant as a credible challenge to the prime minister’s ruling coalition.
Recent public opinion surveys by the Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun both put the Cabinet’s approval ratings at their lowest level since the administration was launched — and far below the disapproval numbers. The same surveys showed that popular support for the DP was little changed at 5 to 6 percent — far below that of the LDP.
The DP’s performance in the assembly race in Tokyo — the home turf of its leader, Renho — was symbolic of the dire straits in which the leading opposition party finds itself. Even before the campaign started, the party suffered defections of one candidate after another to the new Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party led by Gov. Yuriko Koike, which went on to win the most seats and, together with its allies, capture a majority in the 127-seat assembly. The DP won only five seats, down from its pre-election strength of seven and a far cry from the 54 its predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan, captured in the 2009 assembly race in a prelude to its victory in the Lower House election that swept the party to power.
The DP and the LDP were in fact the sole losers in the Tokyo race. The LDP saw its pre-election strength of 57 seats eroded to just 23. Komeito, which is the LDP’s junior coalition partner in national politics but broke ranks with the party in the metropolitan assembly to support the popular governor, held its ground to win the same number of seats as the LDP. The Japanese Communist Party, which has explored campaign cooperation with the DP in Diet elections, boosted its presence in the assembly to 19 seats, up from 17. The LDP’s loss did not translate into DP gains — it’s a problem that the opposition leader has not been able to shake off since the crushing fall from its temporary hold on power five years ago.
While Renho has indicated her willingness to remain at the party’s helm, her leadership seems as shaky as ever. In the wake of the Tokyo assembly election, two DP members of the Diet have either quit or expressed an intention to leave the party, both voicing their criticism of the party leadership. There is speculation that the DP may be deserted by more of its Diet members if Koike’s new party makes a much-rumored advance into national politics.
The signs of cracks among DP lawmakers were evident well before the Tokyo assembly race. In April, Lower House member Akihisa Nagashima, one of the DP’s leading conservative figures, quit the party saying he cannot accept the DP engaging in a campaign tie-up with the JCP in the next general election. Goshi Hosono quit as deputy chief of the party by criticizing the party leadership’s response to the discussion over constitutional amendments — while Abe and his LDP seek to push the agenda forward, the DP is unable to take a clear stand on the issue due to divisions among its members. Renho was elected DP chief last September in the hope that the widely known and popular lawmaker would turn the party’s fortunes around. But the party’s performance since then indicates she has not been able to do the job. She has failed to set a clear path forward, either on policy matters or on future electoral campaign cooperation with other forces.
The DP’s grim state may be eclipsed by the rapid decline in popular support for the Abe administration. However, it is the weak and splintered opposition camp — especially the top opposition party — that has been at least partly responsible for the prime minister’s dominant hold on power in these past years. It would be unfortunate if the DP leadership were to escape scrutiny over its responsibility for the party’s dismal standing because the Abe administration is also facing a severe setback. The opposition party needs to take steps now to stem its own decline.