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The Uncertain Road to Opposition Consolidation

SNA (Tokyo) — There’s one thing that all of Japan’s significant, existing opposition parties seem to agree upon; and that’s that none of them have any hope of overthrowing Liberal Democratic Party rule on their own in the presumed double elections of July 2016. They must combine their forces in some new manner in order to present a credible alternative that people might actually vote for. Beyond that central perception, however, there’s little else that facilitates an opposition consolidation at this time, with most of the opposition parties fighting battles within their own organization to determine the vision through which the new combination might appear.

It might be helpful to review the total strength in terms of Diet representation of each of the opposition parties before going any further. These 263 opposition lawmakers stand against an LDP which currently has 408 Diet lawmakers in the two chambers combined, without even considering New Komeito:

114 – Democratic Party of Japan
62 – Japan Restoration Party
35 – Your Party
19 – Japan Communist Party
9 – People’s Life Party
5 – Social Democratic Party
19 – unaffiliated or microparty

In the opposition ranks, it is clearly the DPJ which, for the time being, still remains the most important player. People’s Life Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has been making this point repeatedly: “It would be best if the DPJ holds up and creates an alternative political platform to build upon.” He has also asserted that the DPJ should be seen as the “main axis” of opposition consolidation.

The numbers argue in favor of Ichiro Ozawa’s analysis, but history and personality make such a project difficult to envision.

At one point, Ozawa and DPJ leader Banri Kaieda were relatively close. It was the Ozawa forces that allowed Kaieda run second to Yoshihiko Noda in the race to become Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s successor in August 2011. However, most of the other existing DPJ lawmakers now despise Ozawa, including the influential “former mainstream group” which encompasses most the deeply experienced and recognizable party figures. Japan Restoration Party co-leader Shintaro Ishihara and Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe have also been outspoken in their rejection of Ichiro Ozawa.

There is, of course, the possibility that Ozawa may retire or be removed from politics by health issues before July 2016, and presumably that would eliminate the obstacle to the People’s Life Party merging into a larger opposition force, but so far Ozawa is showing no clear indication that he intends to step down, and is instead speaking of July 2016 as his “last chance” to create the viable alternative to the LDP.

All that said, the DPJ is clearly in an awful condition and highly unlikely to return to power through its own efforts alone. Even at the local level, the decline of the party’s influence has been sharp: something like half of the local numbers the party maintained several years ago has defected or resigned over the past year or so.

Banri Kaieda has preached and practiced intra-party reconciliation as much as he can, but the policy differences among the different DPJ groups remain wide and deep. Moreover, the many failures of the three-year DPJ regime have tarnished the DPJ brand to such a degree that it would take an almost complete breakdown of the LDP for the Japanese people to give them another shot at government control. The chances of another “DPJ Era” occurring like that of the September 2009 to December 2012 period are close to nil, and the DPJ lawmakers all seem to recognize this reality themselves.

The prospects are considerably better, however, for the DPJ to be the leading element in a coalition government encompassing a number of smaller political parties. If the Japanese people are in the mood to punish the LDP in July 2016, this prospect could occur almost automatically.

Aside from Ichiro Ozawa’s advocacy of such a scenario, it seems that Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe has independently reached much the same conclusion, and he believes it to be wise to start now on a project of aligning Your Party policies with the DPJ and creating relationships that could form the heart of the post-July 2016 coalition government.

The concept is now being called the “party bloc” or sometimes the “party union.” What it signifies is the idea that most of the existing opposition political parties would keep their current party organizations but create mutual policy agreements and working relationships that would allow them to work in a united fashion to eventually bring the LDP down and then create their own coalition government.

Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe calls this concept his “party direction” and DPJ leader Banri Kaieda has also praised this notion and seems willing to participate in it.

But there is a rival view that also has many advocates, and that is the so-called “new party concept.” The idea here is that the major opposition parties should go all the way by dissolving their current structures and forming a new, united political party to do battle with the LDP.

The single-most outspoken advocate of the “new party concept” is former Your Party Secretary-General Kenji Eda, who is locked in a mortal feud with Watanabe. Eda’s circle of supporters within Your Party seems to amount to about ten lawmakers, and they are keen to create a new political party together with the Japan Restoration Party and some part of the DPJ as well. Eda asserts that Your Party was always conceived as a catalyst to bring about political party realignment and that now is the time to move.

The Eda Group within Your Party has been cheered on by Japan Restoration Party co-leader Toru Hashimoto. The two wings of the JRP — the Osaka Wing and the Sunrise Wing — hardly disguise the fact any more that they are looking for some kind of political divorce, or at least a new configuration within a larger party. So in that respect they are quite eager for a party realignment.

On the other hand, the JRP has become the “odd man out” among the opposition in many respects. Many opposition politicians see the JRP as being closer to the Abe government than to the rest of the opposition. Should the JRP break apart, it seems quite possible that some portion of its lawmaker contingent would apply to join (or rejoin) the ruling LDP rather than federate with the current opposition. On the other hand, it’s also quite easy to envision the LDP rejecting those applications unless a lot of groundwork had been done in advance to facilitate the move. The possibility of an agreement between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Shintaro Ishihara to jointly work toward revision of the Constitution cannot be ruled out, although this could corrode the existing LDP-New Komeito alliance.

Within the DPJ, the “new party concept” has been most associated with former Secretary-General Goshi Hosono. Hosono remains a bright and relatively popular figure within the DPJ, and he seems reasonably close to the “former mainstream group” that includes most of the big names. If this group despairs of Banri Kaieda’s party leadership and its deep connections to the Rengo labor union federation in particular, but cannot muster the internal force to dislodge him, then it is just conceivable that they might join Your Party’s Eda Group and the JRP’s Osaka Wing in a new political party.

At present, however, there is little indication that such a development is imminent. Hosono has gone relatively quiet in recent weeks and may have subtly backed away from the “new party concept” — at least for the time being. It may also be that Banri Kaieda’s recent promotion of key “former mainstream group” leaders into responsible policy positions within the DPJ may have cooled the fires of internal discontent to some degree, and thus stymied the prospects of the “new party concept” as it relates to the DPJ.

The Japan Communist Party is the only opposition party that beams with pleasure about where they stand today. This year has seen them make significant advances both in the House of Councillors and in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, and they have been more successful than might have been expected in painting themselves as the only effective opposition to the Abe regime.

As always, the JCP stands aside from the rest of the opposition parties, but much less so now than previously. The JCP leadership wants to maintain the current wave of popularity they are experiencing and has calculated that simply being the “Party of No! No! No!” won’t allow them to accomplish that goal. Instead, the JCP is now cooperating with the rest of the opposition (except for their mortal enemies in the JRP) to a degree unseen at any previous time.

Indeed, while it was almost always the case in the past that analysts of Japanese politics would speak the phrase “all the opposition parties except the Communists…”; more often than not in recent months that phrase has transformed into “all the opposition parties except the Japan Restoration Party…”

There are, of course, still serious limits to how much integration with the opposition the JCP would accept. The possibility of them supporting the “new party concept” is zero. The possibility of them joining the “party bloc” concept is probably not zero, but still highly unlikely.

On the other hand, it does seem distinctly possible that the JCP may form good enough relations with other opposition parties that, should they find themselves holding the balance between the LDP and the main opposition at some point in the future, they would actively assist the opposition rather than maintain their usual stance of aloofness.

Finally comes the runt of the litter, which is the barely-alive Social Democratic Party and its five surviving national lawmakers.

Actually, there have been some otherwise interesting developments within this group. With the resignation of Mizuho Fukushima as party leader and the temporary ascendancy of Secretary-General Seiji Mataichi as interim head, this tiny party has been organizing its very first competitive leadership election since the party was reorganized in 1996.

Two candidates have stepped forward: One is first-term House of Councillors lawmaker Tadatomo Yoshida; and the other is Tokyo Toshima Ward Assemblyman Taiga Ishikawa. If Ishikawa should prevail in the leadership race, not only would it be a highly irregular case of a local politician heading a national political party, but also the first case of a fully recognized Japanese political party led by someone who is an “open gay,” as the Japanese media puts it.

At any rate, whoever wins this leadership race will be hard pressed to allow the SDP to survive as an independent party, if that is even their goal at this point.

The SDP has a strong relationship with the People’s Life Party, and in fact they came close to merging their House of Councillors caucus into a united front of liberals, together with independents Taro Yamamoto and Keiko Itokazu. This plan was put on hold, however, after the People’s Life Party decided that such an alliance might make it more difficult for them to participate in the larger “party bloc” should it come to fruition. It’s still entirely possible that a liberal political merger along these general lines may occur next year.

As this survey of opposition consolidation schemes should make amply clear, the current situation is enormously subtle and complex. It would be foolhardy to make any firm predictions with so many moving parts and underground political currents flowing about. About the only thing that can be said with a reasonable degree of certainty is that the current structure of the opposition is untenable and that movements are afoot to create a new combination.

Both Yoshimi Watanabe and, later, Banri Kaieda have warned against creating another “cut-and-paste” or “overnight” political party like the New Frontier Party of the 1990s, and they say that something must be learned from all of the opposition failures of the past. This is the main reason why they reject the “new party concept” in favor of the “party bloc” strategy, in which each organization could keep some part of its own identity while working together in the common cause of overthrowing LDP rule.

In the August 1993 to June 1994 period, under the premiers Morihiro Hosokawa and Tsutomu Hata, such a multiparty coalition government performed very poorly once they were put in government, but it is also true that they were thrown together suddenly in the midst of chaotic political change. It could be a little bit better if a “party bloc” is formed soon hereafter and then be given several years of experience working together before they have to face the July 2016 elections.

It’s still hard to get too excited about the prospect of such a opposition-led government when one considers the wide variety of ideological views it would have to accommodate, but among the very bad choices available for the near-term future of Japan’s political opposition, it seems the most realistic path forward.

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