Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move to call a snap general election next month has triggered a surprise realignment in the opposition camp that could pose a potent threat to the survival of his administration. Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara’s decision to effectively disband the largest opposition force to be absorbed by the nascent party just launched by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike may finally result in the creation of a serious contender to the ruling coalition — the lack of which has enabled Abe to maintain his iron grip on power for the past five years. But just as Abe was held to account for his decision to call the snap poll now, the opposition forces need to explain to voters what they together aim to achieve beyond winning the upcoming election.
Abe’s decision to dissolve the Lower House on Thursday — with 15 months to go in its members’ four-year term — was clearly intended to catch the opposition off guard and secure the best possible performance for his Liberal Democratic Party. Popular support for his administration has been picking up again after sinking just a few months ago to its worst levels due to a series of scandals. The opposition leader Democratic Party was in a pathetic condition; the newly chosen Maehara was unable to reverse the party’s sinking fortunes or stop the departures of its lawmakers to join the rising force led by Koike. Koike’s bid to launch a new national party was deemed a threat to the ruling coalition after her local Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party upstaged the LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race in July. But while Koike managed to launch her Kibo no To (Party of Hope) just ahead of Abe’s announcement of the snap election, there seemed to be obvious limits to how far the fledgling party can go in the Lower House race to be held on Oct. 22.
Maehara’s decision appeared to make political sense. The defections of DP members, including veteran lawmakers who had held Cabinet and key party positions while the old Democratic Party of Japan was in power, seemed unstoppable to the point where its survival as a major political force was thrown in doubt. A further decline of the No. 1 opposition force would leave the opposition camp even more splintered, a problem that in turn has made Abe and his LDP-led coalition ever stronger over the years.
The decision, for which Maehara obtained approval from the party’s lawmakers a few hours after Abe dissolved the Lower House, was extraordinary. The Democratic Party will not field any candidates in the upcoming election and instead will fully support Kibo no To. DP members planning to run will apply to Kibo no To for endorsement on the new party’s ticket. That effectively spells an end to the DP as a party, though it will remain in existence for now. Maehara himself will run in the October race as an independent. Kibo no To says it will not unconditionally accept all DP members but will screen each one.
For Koike, the DP’s abundant funding, pool of lawmakers and nationwide organization — with the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the nation’s largest umbrella labor organization, serving as a campaign machine — will help quickly develop her nascent party into a major force. Kibo no To was launched Monday with only 14 Diet members — including many DP defectors. It said it is planning to field some 100 candidates in the October race, but voting is just about three weeks away.
Maehara’s pledge that he “would do anything” to pull down the Abe administration may be justified as that of an opposition leader. It was obvious that opposition parties competing with each other would only benefit the ruling force — as Diet elections in the years since the DPJ’s fall from power clearly show. Speculation that Koike might quit as governor to run for the Lower House in the October election — which she has repeatedly denied — may add to the momentum of the new force.
Still, the DP and its lawmakers need to explain to voters, including their supporters, their prospective merger with Koike’s new party. Joining forces to create a viable alternative to Abe’s ruling coalition will be a rational move. But that alternative has to be built on a common policy agenda. Merely jumping on the popular governor’s bandwagon will not gain voters’ trust. The policy platform of Koike’s new party also remains vague. It pledges to “reset Japan” and seeks to be a “tolerant, reform-oriented conservative” party that will realize “politics not beholden to special interests,” but much of its specific policies are still in the making.
Irrespective of the way the snap election was called, it will provide voters with a chance to hand down their judgment on the Abe administration and its policies. Both the ruling and opposition camp need to make clear to the electorate what they stand for, so that the voters will be able to make an informed judgment.