A bid by opposition forces Kibo no To (Party of Hope) and the Democratic Party to merge and create a new party — the latest move in a seemingly endless series of breakups and mergers within the opposition camp — comes just months after the DP, then the largest opposition party, split apart ahead of the Lower House election last October. At that time, many of its members joined Kibo no To to run on the ticket of the fledgling party just launched by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who was riding a wave of popularity after defeating Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race.
In the general election, the Koike-led Kibo no To quickly lost its momentum and ended up with disappointing results. While Abe’s LDP-Komeito ruling coalition retained its two-thirds majority in the Lower House, the opposition camp ended up even more fragmented than before the election. Now both Kibo no To, which is no longer led by Koike, and the DP, comprising mainly Upper House members and aligned with former members of the Lower House who survived the race as independents, face dismal prospects. Popular support for each party in media polls is in the mere 1 percent range.
It may not come as a surprise that Kibo no To and the DP are exploring a merger to form a new force — which, if they can hold their ranks together, will edge out the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), another DP splinter group, as the largest opposition party in terms of the number of Diet members.
Leaders of the two parties agreed earlier this month to launch talks for a merger — possibly as early as May — and are proceeding to develop the platform and policy agenda for the prospective new party. What they should be doing first, however, is reflecting on whether their planned union will win the understanding and support of voters.
A splintered opposition camp cannot play its primary role of engaging in policy competition with the government — as a weak opposition can only seek to make gains by attacking the ruling parties. Efforts need to be made to rebuild the fragmented opposition forces. But the way the two parties are seeking to quickly merge now — just half a year after splitting before the last election — does not seem to make much sense from the point of view of voters. It only appears that they are bidding to merge into a larger force to serve their own interests, which include surviving key elections scheduled for 2019, such as the nationwide series of local elections in April that year and the next Upper House election that summer.
The planned union of the two parties does not seem to have the full support of their own members, either. Some conservative members of Kibo no To have expressed opposition to the merger and their intention to opt out of the new party, while several DP lawmakers have reportedly explored joining the CDP instead of the new party. CDP leader Yukio Edano has rebuffed calls for his party to participate in the creation of the new force and is instead calling on individual lawmakers who agree with the CDP’s policies to join his party. As things stand, there is no prospect that a Kibo no To-DP merger will create a potent opposition force that can compete with the ruling alliance.
Kibo no To fought last October’s election on a campaign agenda that pursued policies distinct from those of the DP, such as support of the security legislation enacted in 2015 and promoting discussions for a constitutional amendment. Lower House member Akihisa Nagashima, a former DP member who took part in the founding of Kibo no To last fall, opposes the party’s merger with the DP, saying that such a union constitutes a breach of trust of the voters who cast their ballots for Kibo no To in the general election. He raises a legitimate concern that should not be dismissed.
The splintered opposition camp needs to be rebuilt into a more united force that can compete with the ruling parties through policies that seek to address the nation’s mounting challenges. But an unprincipled union of parties for the sheer sake of numbers would cause the parties and their members to lose credibility in the eyes of the voters. The way in which new opposition parties have been launched, broken up and regrouped quickly over the years has fueled suspicions that the same process might continue to be repeated ad nauseam. It’s high time that the opposition camp learned from its history of failures and not make the same mistake again.