The biggest political news in Japan this week – apart, it seems, from a comment from Prime Minister Abe to the effect that he’d like a humanoid robot to replace him in Diet questioning sessions – is the merger of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (民主党), with another opposition group, the Japan Innovation Party (維新の党). The merger will add 21 seats to the DPJ in the House of Representatives, bringing their total to 80, along with five in the House of Councillors, bringing them to 76 seats. It comes as part of an attempt by Japan’s opposition parties to align themselves into some kind of united force against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (自民党) ahead of elections later this year.
News of the merger hasn’t exactly set Japan’s electorate abuzz. Newspaper opinion polls suggest that a majority of voters don’t have high expectations of the merged party (which will change its name, logo and campaigning slogans in the coming week), by a factor of around two to one, and the announcement of this supposedly major new opposition force has done little to erode support for the Abe cabinet (despite polls consistently showing a lack of faith in the administration’s headline policies).
The lack of voter interest is unsurprising; Japanese voters are understandably fatigued by the endless game of musical chairs which Japan’s opposition has been playing since the DPJ was booted from power in late 2012. In the short few years since Abe took power, the opposition has fragmented and coalesced on multiple occasions. Centrist economic liberals Your Party fell apart, reappeared as the Unity Party and promptly merged into the populist right-wing Restoration Party movement, which emerged from regional politics in Osaka, became a national movement, then returned to Osaka regional politics – leaving a rump, the Japan Innovation Party, which is what is now merging with the DPJ. On the fringes, former political “big beasts” like Ozawa Ichiro and Ishihara Shintaro (now supposedly retired for good) have formed, dissolved and re-formed small political movements, all clearly calculated as potential merger vehicles that might give them access to the corridors of power at a major party once more. The DPJ itself, meanwhile, has spent far more time discussing its own future and failing to conceal signs of damaging internal strife than it has spent challenging the LDP’s policy platform.
Every developed nation, it seems, is presently harbouring a strong degree of resentment at the perceived disconnect between their political classes and the lived realities of the people they govern; look at the degree to which London’s “Westminister Bubble” or the concept of Washington’s “Beltway” have become epithets in the UK and USA respectively. Japanese voters, equally, dismiss the maneouvering, backstabbing and self-serving jockeying for power of their opposition parties as being something like a “Kasumigaseki Bubble”. Opposition mergers and rebrands may be of all-consuming interest to the political chattering classes who huddle around the moat of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, but the individual impact of such events on the electorate is minimal, while the impact of such a drawn-out series of events is merely to create an overriding sense of disorganisation and disarray that drives even Abe’s most stern critics to despair that his administration is the only real choice on offer.
Looking at the detail of the DPJ-JIP merger, supposedly the most important opposition realignment since 2012, it’s hard to argue with that position. What is the DPJ actually merging with? As mentioned above, the JIP is a rump party left over from the Osaka Ishin movement’s return to regional politics and identity. The Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会), from which the JIP was birthed, was a pretty firmly right-wing, revisionist movement – the Abe administration flirted with the idea of working with them to propose amendments to the pacifist constitution – which is in itself enough to raise eyebrows; isn’t the DPJ supposedly a more centre-left, progressive crowd than the LDP? What are they doing merging with a party whose politics have often been to the right of the LDP?
While that’s a legitimate concern, and one that speaks to the barrenness of the idological landscape in Japanese politics (where political beliefs and ideology seem always to come a distant second to career ambition), it actually gives the JIP a little too much credit. The JIP is not a consistent, coherent party of the right; it is an ill-fitting band of political misfits, some of whom are experienced or worthy of respect in their own rights, but who as a group look little like a real political party.
The JIP contingent that will be absorbed by the DPJ in the coming weeks consists of 21 members of the House of Representatives and five members of the House of Councillors. Between them, they count membership of almost every minor political party of the past ten years or so, from the left-wing environmentalism of the Green Wind party (みどりの風) to the hard-line neoconservatism of the New Frontier Party (新進党) and the historical revisionism of the Japan Restoration Party. Quite a few (seven Representatives, and all five Councillors) are former members of the neo-liberal Your Party who left along with Eda Kenji to form the more “soft neo-liberal” Unity Party in 2013. Five are former members of the Liberal Democratic Party. By far the largest group, though, is those who will feel rather at home in the DPJ; of the 21 Representatives in the current JIP line-up, 15 are former DPJ members. Several of them departed the DPJ with its aforementioned “big beast”, Ozawa Ichiro, who has left a trail of shattered parties behind him throughout his political careeer; their colleagues in the party may be rather concerned to see Ozawa loyalists returning to the fold.
The point is that there’s really nothing to suggest that this group of 25 men and one woman (which will do little for the DPJ’s diversity targets) is going to bring fresh ideas to the DPJ’s successor. More than half of them have been in the DPJ before, and almost all of them have been political nomads throughout their careers; aside from the small group of Eda Kenji’s loyalists, they have veered wildly around the political spectrum, suggesting opportunism rather than consistency or integrity. Their addition to the DPJ’s roster just makes it even more confusing and difficult to gather what, exactly, the party is supposed to stand for, or who is supposed to vote for them. If you were a DPJ voter with centre-left, progressive preferences, which seems a not unreasonable profile of a typical DPJ voter, the absorption of right-wing hardliners and neo-liberals should be deeply concerning.
To make matters worse, it’s really not clear what this group is meant to bring the DPJ in terms of electoral benefit. Only four of its members are representatives for Single-Member Districts (that is to say, they won their districts outright and should have a reasonable chance of doing so again regardless of which party they stand for) – Eda Kenji in Kanagawa 8th District, Kakizawa Mito in Tokyo 15th District, Ide Yosei in Nagano 3rd District and Isaka Nobuhiko in Hyogo 1st District, all of whom are former Your Party / Unity Party members. The remaining 17 Representatives and 5 Councillors are all elected proportionally through the party list system, and thus do not bring a safe district seat with them. One could argue that removing the JIP from the proportional ballot and presumably taking some of its voters will favour the DPJ through reduced opposition competition; but much of the JIP’s electoral strength was derived from its leadership in the form of cantankerous former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro and outspoken Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru. Voters fond of Ishihara seem unlikely to break for the DPJ in an election; Hashimoto’s support, concentrated around the Kansai region (especially in Osaka itself), will transfer to its new regional party, the Osaka Restoration Party.
It’s hard to see the DPJ-JIP merger as being much more than yet another round of musical chairs; just another of the seemingly endless pauses in the music that have seen the opposition politicians scrambling for seats since the 2012 election. While the opportunity to rebrand the DPJ is welcome in some regards (any party that reaches the point of printing posters telling voters that it’s okay to hate them, but you should vote for them anyway to protect the consititution, is a party that desperately needs a rebrand), but the JIP merger suggests a deepening crisis in the DPJ’s identity, policy platform and ideological position, not light at the end of the tunnel.