As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears well on his way to securing a third term as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party next month, the opposition camp continues to be weak and in disarray. The Democratic Party for the People (DPP), the second-largest opposition force, has kicked off its first leadership race since it was established in May in a merger of two of the several groups that emerged out of the breakup of the Democratic Party last fall. But the DPP campaign leading up to a vote in early September is languishing below the radar as popular support for the party remains mired in miniscule levels.

With less than a year to go before the triennial Upper House election in summer 2019, the opposition camp, as long as it remains as fragmented as it is now, stands little chance of being taken seriously by voters as a possible alternative to the governing parties. It’s time that the opposition parties decide whether or how they intend to bring their forces together to mount a meaningful challenge to Abe’s ruling coalition.

At issue in the DPP race is how the party will go about cooperating with other opposition forces as they try to stand up to the LDP-Komeito ruling alliance. Keisuke Tsumura, the lone opponent of the party’s current co-leader, Yuichiro Tamaki, charges that Tamaki’s priority on making proposals to the Abe administration rather than confrontation during the last regular Diet session has damaged the party’s trust with the other opposition parties as they stepped up their criticism of the administration. It appears that the DPP has yet to set a clear direction four months after it was launched as yet another “new” opposition force.

The breakup of the then-largest opposition Democratic Party just ahead of the October 2017 Lower House race left the opposition camp even more splintered after the election. The DPP was created in May as members of what remained of the DP and lawmakers from Kibo no To (Party of Hope) — launched last fall with much fanfare by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike in her aborted attempt to re-enter national politics — joined forces. But the very fact that only about 60 percent of lawmakers in the two forces combined eventually joined in the creation of the DPP illustrated its tough prospects. That remains unchanged: Popular support for the party in a Kyodo News survey in July stood at a meager 0.9 percent.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), which emerged from the general election as the No. 1 opposition force, maintains a more solid popular support — 12.4 percent in the Kyodo poll. That, however, remains a far cry from the LDP’s support rate of 41.6 percent. There’s no prospect that the CDP alone can compete with Abe’s ruling coalition. But during the last Diet session, it appeared that the CDP and the DPP competed with each other for leadership within the opposition camp. The six years since the LDP returned to power in 2012 clearly show that competition within the splintered opposition camp only benefits the ruling coalition, either in elections or in Diet proceedings.

With key elections scheduled for next year, including the nationwide series of local elections in the spring and the Upper House race in the summer, the prospect for an effective campaign cooperation among opposition parties remains unclear. The opposition parties reportedly agree that they should coordinate their candidates to avoid competing with each other in crucial single-seat districts — which often hold the key to the overall election results. However, CDP chief Yukio Edano has rejected a proposal by the DPP’s Tamaki that the opposition parties adopt a key set of common policy proposals and create a joint campaign headquarters for the race.

The CDP and DPP also differ on whether to involve the Japanese Communist Party in the campaign cooperation. The CDP hasn’t ruled out a parliamentary alliance including the JCP, which Tamaki calls unacceptable because of “fundamental differences” in policy. The gap over relations with the JCP also exists within the DPP. As he bids for the DPP leadership, Tsumura said the party should coordinate candidacies with other parties including the JCP, while Tamaki, cautious about campaign cooperation with the JCP, says the DPP should prioritize fielding more candidates of its own to boost its presence.

The DPP should sufficiently discuss and clarify its position on such matters through its leadership race, which should help facilitate its talks for cooperation with other opposition forces. The specifics of how the opposition forces intend to work together aside, one thing seems certain — that a fragmented and weak opposition camp cannot expect to play its due role of engaging in a policy-based competition with the ruling parties and presenting voters a choice.

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