By Cory Evans
On January 14, Japan’s Democratic Party and the Party of Hope had reached a new coalition agreement. Three days later, the deal was off. What’s going on? And just what are these opposition parties anyway?
Japan’s Parliament, the Diet, is bicameral. Japan uses the Westminster System, so the lower house is actually more powerful. The Prime Minister, Japan’s chief executive, is elected by the lower house.
The lower house, called the House of Representatives, has 465 seats. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s centrist ruling party, holds 283, or 61 percent, of these seats.
A small religious, socially conservative Party called Komeito maintains a modest but disciplined bloc of 29 seats, or 6 percent. The LDP does not need a coalition partner, but the dovish Komeito and the LDP have a long-standing alliance. They caucus together, giving the coalition 312 total seats, or 67 percent, a supermajority.
Japan’s opposition parties are scattered. To understand their current situation, we need to look back to 2009. Back then, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had just won 307 seats, or 66 percent, in a wave election, the first opposition victory since the Second World War.
The DPJ government started with high expectations but ended in political disaster as outrage over poor crisis management exacerbated other political weaknesses. The DPJ was decimated in the 2012 elections, winning just 57 seats, or 12 percent.
Seeking to reinvigorate the Party, the center-left DPJ merged with the right Japan Innovation Party (JIP) in 2016, creating the new Democratic Party (DP). It was a controversial merger; the new DP was larger, but many voters felt that it lacked a consistent message.
With polls coming up in 2017, the outlook for the DP looked bleak. Politics in Japan was briefly upended when Independent Yuriko Koike, the popular Governor of Tokyo, announced that she was creating her own new party: Kibi-no-To, the Party of Hope.
Kibi-no-To stood for fresh faces in politics. It also stood for conservatism, running to the right of the LDP. Kibi-no-To surged in the polls immediately after its formation and almost seemed a threat to take a majority.
“For about two weeks it really looked close,” said a campaign adviser for an opposition member. “It really seemed like [Prime Minister Abe] had made a mistake calling a snap election.”
Kibi-no-To’s success presented a sudden challenge to the DP. After the merger with JIP, the party lacked a consistent ideology anyway. Why not just join up with Kibi-no-To?
DP back-benchers started to leave and soon the whole DP broke apart. Kibi-no-To surged. It seemed briefly like the opposition had unified behind Governor Koike.
But then Kibi-no-To faltered. As the poll numbers fell, many left-leaning MPs from the DP and the old DPJ felt lost. They could find no clear and consistent left-of-center policy option in Japanese politics.
These lawmakers together created the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) to represent that option. They contested the election separately running on their new platform.
These two new factions split the 2017 vote. The CDP won 54 seats, or 12 percent. Kibi-no-To won 51 seats, or 11 percent, while the old DP won just 13 seats, or 3 percent.
The remaining seats were divided between the far-left Japan Communist Party (JCP), or 3 percent, far-right Nippon Ishin, or 2 percent, left Social Democrats and Liberals, and eight independents, or 2 percent.
Japan’s opposition is unlikely to win the next election unless the various parties can come together and present a united front. The proposed merger of Kibi-no-To and the DP would have started this process, creating a new opposition bloc of 64 seats, or 14 percent and a clear heir to the DPJ.
The failure of the Kibi-no-To and DP merger talks is a blow to the opposition and a boon to the LDP. “It’s a major setback,” a close observer, and DP supporter, told The National Discourse. “We have to show people that we’re serious; that we’re responsible for leadership.”
It is an open question where the opposition goes from here. The CDP and the DP could explore a merger, or, even more dramatically, a merger between the CDP and Kibi-no-To. There is plenty of time to sort things out before the next election. Yet the CDP remains implacably opposed to both options.
For now, the LDP holds all the cards. Seven years into his administration Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finds himself in a commanding position, able to govern with solid majorities for the foreseeable future.