Japanese Opposition Alliance Negotiations Fail
In a political development confirming the weakened state of Japan’s opposition political parties in the wake of the Oct. 22, 2017 snap election for Japan’s House of Representatives, two major opposition parties announced the failure of negotiations to form a unified parliamentary bloc to oppose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan’s National Diet on Jan 17th.
Currently, Prime Minister Abe leads a governing coalition of his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Buddhist-linked Komeito that commands two-thirds of the House of Representatives and three-fifths of the House of Councillors. Prior to the lower house election last year, the main opposition party (the Democratic Party, Minshintou, not to be confused with its predecessors of identical English name) dissolved its House of Representatives caucus in order to allow party members to join upstart conservative party Kibo no To (“Party of Hope”), which was founded by current Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike — an ex-LDP member who briefly served as Prime Minister Abe’s Minister of Defense in the summer of 2007.
In the ensuing scramble weeks prior to the election, most conservative DP House of Representatives candidates applied for and received approval for membership with the Party of Hope while the remaining liberal wing of the DP Representatives caucus and moderate candidates seeking membership were rejected by the Party of Hope’s leadership. They were forcing the rejected DP candidates to stand as independents, bereft of the subsidies and support otherwise provided by political parties.
In order to unify the orphaned stragglers of the dissolved DP Representatives caucus, DP deputy leader Yukio Edano established the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and quit the DP with less than three weeks to the election. Political pundits noted the election was now a contest of which opposition party would enter the House of Representatives with the most seats.
Ultimately, Edano led the liberal upstart CDP to securing 55 seats in the lower house in the Oct. 22, 2017 election, edging out Tokyo Governor Koike’s Party of Hope (derided by some as a “mini-LDP”) by 5 seats and became the largest opposition party in the 465-seat House of Representatives. Prime Minister Abe’s governing coalition benefitted from the opposition disarray, securing 312 seats — a two-thirds majority that makes amending the Constitution of Japan viable.
Political fallout from the election followed swiftly. Seiji Maehara, the DP leader that dissolved the DP Representatives caucus, resigned on Oct. 27, 2017. The DP, reduced to its 42-seat presence in the 242-seat upper house of the National Diet, then convened an emergency membership meeting to select a new leader, the fourth such meeting since the formation of the DP in 2016. While initially resisting calls for resignation, Tokyo Governor Koike stepped down as party leader on Nov. 14 to take responsibility for the underperformance of the Party of Hope.
The ensuing 195th session of the National Diet re-elected Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister of Japan and saw the parties in the House of Representatives coalesce into three loose coalitions centered on their stances regarding Prime Minister Abe’s push for amending Japan’s pacifist constitution to officially permit remilitarization.
While the governing coalition supports amending the Constitution and the liberal/left-wing opposition “pacifist coalition” (CDP, plus the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party) opposes any amendments, the Party of Hope has no single clear stance on the topic of amending the constitution, a reflection of its wide-ranging ideological composition of ex-DP, ex-LDP, and ex-independent members.
The DP shares this ambiguity on the topic of remilitarization with the Party of Hope — something which may have contributed to the breakup of the DP prior to the 2017 lower house election. The fractured opposition situation is complicated further by CDP leader Edano’s refusal to consider merging with or absorbing parties with similar views in deference to Edano’s criticism of “Diet numbers games” characteristic of “power struggles in Nagatacho.”
On Jan 14th, to much surprise from Japanese media, the Party of Hope and the DP announced the creation of a tentative alliance between the two parties ahead of the 196th session of the Diet. Secretaries-general of both parties also announced that such a deal would also include 14 ex-DP independents currently seated in the lower house. If approved, the arrangement would displace the CDP as the largest opposition party in the lower house and enhance the DP’s role as the leading opposition party in the upper house.
However, political experts questioned whether or not the Party of Hope and the DP could reconcile their differing stances on remilitarization, “collective self-defense,” and ideology, noting that several DP heavyweights and the remaining conservative founders of the Party of Hope oppose such an alliance.
Ultimately, by Jan 17th, negotiations between the DP and the Party of Hope were terminated after the DP leadership, in a contentious party meeting, failed to garner adequate support from its rank-and-file members and the Party of Hope cited the collapse of the “relationship of trust” between the two prospective allies and withdrew from talks. This failure to form an alliance leaves the CDP as the chief opposition force in the more powerful lower house — thus granting it several parliamentary privileges, including deciding the course of debate in the Diet alongside the governing LDP and Komeito coalition — and further highlights the dissension in the ailing DP.
While DP leader Kohei Otsuka stated his intention to continue to “promote cooperation among the three opposition parties” at a DP meeting on Jan. 18, certain political commentators have called this most recent partisan episode “shambolic,” “appalling,” and “beyond [a] farce.”
The DP faces the prospect of political irrelevance and even extinction as the party struggles to provide voters with a clear platform, fails to retain high-profile members through resignations and defections (most notably former DP leader Renho, who joined the CDP on Dec. 28, 2017), and provides lackluster and impotent opposition to Prime Minister Abe’s governing coalition.
What the opposition political party situation will look like by the next election for either chamber of the Diet depends heavily on the cohesion (or lack thereof) of the DP and the Party of Hope along with the ability of the CDP, even with its small caucus, to mobilize voters and influence national political debate.