Another round of opposition realignment?

The opposition camp may be headed for further breakups and regroupings. The ongoing race to choose a new leader of the Democratic Party — the largest opposition force — to take over from Renho has been overshadowed by former deputy DP leader Goshi Hosono’s move to leave the party, along with speculation that he and other DP lawmakers will pursue an alliance with a much-anticipated new party being contemplated for launch by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike in preparation for the next Lower House general election.

A realignment of the opposition may be inevitable given the DP’s failure to present a viable alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition. It must not be forgotten, however, that a splintered opposition camp will only benefit the ruling parties — as it has ever since Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance wrested power back from the DP’s predecessor in the 2012 election. It is ironic that the opposition camp is in such disarray just as Abe’s once seemingly unassailable grip on power now appears shaky with a plunge in the popular approval ratings of his administration and the LDP’s setback in various elections, including its stunning defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly campaign in early July.

Renho announced her resignation as DP chief to accept blame for the party’s dismal showing in the Tokyo assembly election, in which it captured only five of the 127 seats contested. Koike, who took the capital’s helm in the gubernatorial election a year ago, was the clear winner, leading her fledgling Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party and its allies to a comfortable majority in the assembly.

The DP leadership race, with a vote by the party’s members and supporters set for Sept. 1, is shaping up as a two-way contest between former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, backed by the party’s liberal forces, and former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, supported by some conservative ranks. However, the race between the two veteran lawmakers who led the old Democratic Party of Japan in its ascent to power — and experienced its crushing fall — does not appear to be generating any of the excitement usually associated with choosing a new leader. Rather, the departure of Hosono, once deemed the party’s prospective leader, from the DP just as it prepares for the leadership race appears to symbolize the party’s continued downward slide.

After tendering his resignation from the DP on Tuesday, Hosono indicated that he plans to create a new party that can win over voters critical of the Abe administration. Several other conservative DP lawmakers are reportedly considering following in his footsteps. And the day before Hosono quit the DP, an independent Lower House member, Masaru Wakasa — a close aide to Koike — announced that he had set up a political group called Nippon First no Kai (Japan First), which is widely expected to evolve into a new national party that has been envisioned by Koike. Wakasa has indicated the new group is ready to hold talks with Hosono on possible cooperation.

Formerly an LDP lawmaker who defied the party leadership to support Koike in last year’s gubernatorial race, Wakasa said Tomin First’s gains in the Tokyo assembly race are a sign that “voters are searching for a new political party that can represent their voice, which is neither the LDP or the DP.” We have seen these “third pole” political forces — which seek to win over voters disenchanted with both the ruling party and the No. 1 opposition force — come and go with varying degrees of success, including Nippon Ishin no Kai, which is now increasingly aligned with Abe’s ruling coalition on policy issues.

The prospects of Koike’s planned national party are uncertain at this point. There is speculation that Abe may decide to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election as early as this fall — before Koike is fully prepared for a Diet race. That question aside, a greater number of opposition forces competing for votes tends to favor the party in power — as shown in national elections since the LDP returned to power in 2012. Campaign cooperation among four opposition parties — in particular between the DP and the Japanese Communist Party — in the Upper House election last year proved a partial success that dented the ruling coalition’s sweep of seats in crucial districts. But pursuit of such cooperation with the JCP in the next Lower House election has alienated conservative ranks within the DP, and the prospect of an effective campaign tie-up in the next general election are up in the air.

A realignment of the opposition forces may be inevitable, and necessary to rebuild a viable alternative to the LDP-led ruling camp. But if the multiple opposition parties end up competing with one another, the ruling coalition will stand to gain.