- Negotiations to forge a unified opposition party have stalled as party leaders have failed to agree on key principles.
- Even a united center-left opposition party faces significant challenges to regaining relevance and restoring a “two-large-party” system, suggesting the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition will remain dominant for the foreseeable future.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to call a snap election in 2017 broke the opposition Democratic Party, creating several offshoots that have struggled to regroup and present a united challenge to Abe and his ruling coalition. In December 2019, the two surviving successor parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), entered talks to unify, particularly as the likelihood of another snap election grows. But negotiations have stalled, suggesting that Abe will continue to benefit from a divided opposition during the final twenty months of his third term as LDP leader.
CDP and DPP leaders have pursued unification talks in large part because they recognize that divisions among the opposition parties, particularly the mainstream center-left parties, all but ensure that ruling party candidates will prevail in many races that would otherwise be competitive for opposition candidates. The fractured opposition may also strengthen Abe’s hand by discouraging electoral participation by independents, voters who do not support the government and might be willing to back opposition candidates but see little reason to do so when opposition parties struggle to run enough candidates, divide the opposition vote, and lack a strong identity that contrasts with Abe and the LDP.
Despite recognizing that they stand virtually no chance of taking power or even sharply reducing the government’s majority without unification, CDP leader Yukio Edano and DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki have struggled to overcome obstacles to forging a new party. The fundamental problem is an imbalance of power between the parties. The CDP has more seats in both houses of the Diet, more local assembly seats across the country, and – perhaps most importantly – is substantially more popular than the DPP, which has struggled to break 1% in opinion polls (although the CDP itself struggles to break 10% and is far behind the LDP, which polls around 40%). From the moment Edano launched the CDP in the weeks before the 2017 election, he has sought to build the CDP into a party with its own identity, less tainted by memories of the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) stint in power (2009-2012) and more capable of providing an alternative to Abe. This determination to build a new party identity ultimately explains why talks have broken down. Edano has demanded that the merger should be a takeover: the CDP should absorb the DPP, preserve its name, and continue to call for more strident reforms, most notably the abandonment of nuclear power.
It is unlikely that this impasse will be broken soon. Abe’s government has continued to be dogged by questions about last year’s cherry blossom-viewing party, the casino legalization process, and campaign finance scandals that led to the resignation of cabinet ministers last year, making it increasingly likely that Abe will wait to call a snap election until after the end of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in August. (One theory suggests that he could link a snap election to the outcome of the US presidential election in November.) As the likelihood of a snap election in the immediate term diminishes, opposition unification seems less urgent and neither party is likely to abandon its conditions.
Meanwhile, even if the parties unify, the opposition will still face a long road back to relevance, let alone power. While part of the problem is policy – Abe has successfully co-opted the middle ground on some of the most important issues, complicating the opposition’s efforts to draw clear distinctions – the bigger issues are trust and competence. Notwithstanding the recent scandals, after more than seven years in power Abe and his ruling coalition have gained a reputation for competence and stability. He has deftly managed Japan’s foreign relations during a period of international instability and unemployment is at record lows and the economy has grown. Indeed, Abe is seen as so steady a leader that it remains possible that the LDP could ask him to serve a fourth term as its leader, particularly if Donald Trump is reelected as US president. The opposition has tried to use allegations of influence peddling – dating back to 2017 – to undermine Abe’s reputation, but while the public is not satisfied with Abe’s handling of these accusations, the scandals have neither fundamentally damaged his support nor given voters reason to trust the opposition instead. Whatever utility these allegations have had, it is likely that their value is fading. Polls suggest that voters want the Diet to focus on other issues, and there is evidence to suggest that the widening novel coronavirus outbreak is increasingly dominating public attention. Meanwhile, assuming that the Olympics are executed competently, Abe will likely come out of the summer games with a burst of support that should strengthen his position in an election campaign.
The upshot is that the opposition parties are unlikely to make inroads against Abe and the ruling coalition this year. In fact, if a general election is held later this year, the most likely result is a repeat of the 2017 and 2014 general elections, when the ruling coalition maintained its supermajority amidst widespread apathy and historically low turnout.