Almost seven years have passed since the former Democratic Party of Japan lost power in 2012. Since then, the major opposition party has been split into small entities, leaving the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as the only strong political force in Japan. It’s no exaggeration to say that political tension in the Diet has been lost in the face of the significantly weakened opposition camp.
However, today’s two main opposition parties and another minor party recently decided to join forces to form kaiha parliamentary groups in both houses of the Diet in a bid to counterbalance the ruling bloc during the extraordinary Diet session slated to start Oct. 4.
The latest agreement was reached between the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People. The group led by former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in the Lower House also decided to take part. In the Upper House, the Social Democratic Party will join the group. As a result, the new parliamentary groups will have nearly 120 members in the Lower House and over 60 in the Upper House.
Parliamentary groups in the Diet usually act together, but lawmakers from different parties can also join them. By creating a larger group, it will carry more weight in the Diet and keep the ruling power in check, which is the main purpose of the opposition camp in a modern democracy. However, there are concerns and issues that need to be tackled.
The decision to integrate small parliamentary groups into a bigger one was sparked in part by the Upper House election results in July. Though the CDP increased its seats, the number of votes it garnered via proportional representation stood at nearly 3 million less than in the previous Lower House election in 2017. The DPP only won six seats, down from eight. Meanwhile, the newly created Reiwa Shinsengumi party won two seats by capturing some 2.2 million votes in the proportional representation segment. Reiwa Shinsengumi’s support rate has been increasing since then, indicating that both the CDP and the DPP have failed to be seen as a force capable of taking the helm of government.
To become a viable political power and avoid being labeled as a mere merger of small splinters from the defunct DPJ without policy principles, the new parliamentary group must accelerate discussions to iron out their policy differences ahead of the upcoming Diet session.
While the CDP is reluctant to revise the Constitution, some DPP members advocate change. On nuclear power, the CDP wants to ban all commercial reactors, but the DPP takes a more moderate stance. Unless they can form a united front, it would be difficult to present a strong argument against the government. If a deep chasm emerges within the group, it would become even tougher to earn public trust.
There is also a question about whether the new group will coordinate their policies with Reiwa Shinsengumi, especially on the consumption tax. The party advanced in the election by calling for scrapping the consumption tax, saying it is not fair for low-income people to shoulder the same cost as the rich. It reportedly said that if the parliamentary group agrees on reducing the consumption tax to 5 percent from 10 percent, it may consider joining. But if lowering the tax becomes its pledge, the group will also need to show the public how ballooning social security costs should be covered. Otherwise, the public will not see it as a responsible political force.
Whether former foes in the election can truly join hands is another question. In the July election, DPP candidates went head to head with the CDP and lost in several districts, including in Hokkaido, Tokyo, Saitama and Kanagawa.
But if they overcome these hurdles, there is a chance that Diet deliberations between the ruling and opposition camps could turn into more meaningful political debates. As question times are allocated according to the number of members in each parliamentary group, they will be able to gain more time as a group and can use it strategically.
When watching baseball or soccer, tensions rise when the score is close and spectators can’t take their eyes off the game. The current political situation in Japan is the opposite of this. As long as the opposition parties remain small and fragmented, they won’t be able to grill the government and uncover the facts even if a scandal or injustice emerges. The upshot has been political apathy among the public. This could clearly be seen in the July election, when voter turnout was just 48.8 percent, meaning that more than half of eligible voters chose to abstain.
Whether the new parliamentary group can bring a fresh policy battle into the Diet will be tested in the upcoming extraordinary session.