An opposition merger that failed

An attempt by two parties, Kibo no To (Party of Hope) and the Democratic Party, to take leadership of the opposition camp through a merger ended in apparent failure as only 62 of their combined 107 Diet members joined the newly created Democratic Party for the People (DPP). The move by two of the forces born out of the breakup of the DP, then the No. 1 opposition force, ahead of the Lower House election last October to merge again just months later seems hardly comprehensible from the viewpoints of voters. The fact that 40 percent of their members refused to join the DPP appears to reflect the lack of voters’ hope for yet another “new” opposition force.

Since the former Democratic Party of Japan’s crushing fall from power in 2012, the opposition forces have gone through a series of realignments as they struggled in the face of the dominance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition. It makes sense for the opposition camp to explore a united front against the ruling parties since healthy competition in politics is lost when the opposition is weak and fragmented. However, the failures of the opposition camp over the past six years — in which Abe’s ruling alliance won landslide victories in all nationwide elections — show that they are not trusted by voters as a viable governing alternative.

Instead of continuing to seek new unions for the sheer sake of numbers, the opposition parties should rebuild themselves by first grappling with their own failures. They should reflect on why popular support for the opposition do not go up even when approval ratings of the Abe administration go down. They should think again about the roles required of the opposition camp — a policy-based competition with the ruling force — and take the steps needed to fulfill those roles.

The DP, which had been unable to regain popular support since its predecessor DPJ’s fall from power, was effectively broken up just ahead of the campaign for the snap Lower House election last October. Some of its Lower House members ran on the ticket of Kibo no To, which had just been launched by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. She was riding a wave of popularity after her local party’s victory over Abe’s LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. Others either formed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) or ran as independents in the race. As it turned out, Kibo no To’s momentum fizzled and the party ended up with disappointing results in the election, while the CDP emerged as the opposition leader. What was left of the DP were mainly its Upper House members, plus the Lower House members who survived the election as independents.

Leaders of both Kibo no To and the DP reportedly hoped that by merging their forces — which would have eclipsed that of the CDP — they could take the initiative for further opposition regrouping involving the CDP, which so far has rebuffed their calls for a merger, to create a larger force in time for the 2019 Upper House election. The attempt failed as large numbers in both parties defied their leadership and refused to join the new entity.

Key conservative members of Kibo no To — including those who were among the first to leave the DP last year to become the party’s founding members — chose not to join in the merger, while on the DP side, only 26 of its 53 Diet members chose to take part. Nine of the DP’s 12 Lower House members and 18 of its 41 Upper House members left the party — 11 of these lawmakers joined the CDP instead. That the new party was deserted at its creation by so many of its prospective members suggests that the merger itself was a bad idea.

Kibo no To and DP leaders reportedly kept the new party’s policy platform vague to make it acceptable to a broad range of members, but that is believed to have alienated many lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum. Some lawmakers are said to have stayed away because the merger didn’t involve the CDP, which is well ahead of other opposition forces, though far behind the LDP, in terms of popular support. Former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who left the DP to become an independent, said he did not join the new party because it’s better to focus on uniting the entire opposition camp.

The Kibo no To-DP merger seems to be yet another example of an unprincipled union of political parties in pursuit of numbers. It’s time for the opposition parties to learn that such a union will not work.