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Japan's fractured opposition unites but face uphill battle to unseat LDP

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By Linda Sieg and Ami Miyazaki

Eight years after Japan's Democratic Party was ousted and began unravelling, opposition groups are once again unifying for a general election that could come soon, but they face an uphill battle to dent the current ruling bloc's performance.

The drive to unite has taken on new urgency as the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prepares to pick a new leader on Sept 14 after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last month he would resign because of an illness.

Japan's center-left opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), will merge with most of its former colleagues in the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) next week after picking a new leader on Thursday.

The two groups, plus a batch of unaffiliated opposition MPs, emerged when the Democratic Party imploded in 2017 before a general election that the LDP won handily.

The newly merged party, to be formally launched on Sept 15, could face an early test.

Abe's lieutenant, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, is expected to win the LDP race, virtually assuring he becomes premier because of the party's majority in parliament.

Suga and the LDP have already gotten a bump in voter surveys, and speculation is mounting that he will swiftly call a general election.

A strong performance by the LDP would boost Suga's chances of winning a full three-year term after finishing Abe's tenure.

"Inside the LDP, everyone knows it (support rates) will never be this high again," said Steven Reed, a professor emeritus at Chuo University. Support for the LDP had risen to 41% from 33% in a recent Yomiuri newspaper survey, compared with 4% for the CDPJ.

Abe's nearly eight-year rule, which made him Japan's longest-serving prime minister, was aided by the fragmented opposition because of Japan's electoral system, in which most constituencies elect a single member of parliament to the lower house.

That means the ruling party benefits if several opposition candidates compete. In the last lower-house election, in 2017, the CDPJ won just 54 seats, a fraction of the two-thirds majority garnered by the LDP and its smaller coalition partner.

The new opposition party, which will most likely be led by CDPJ chief Yukio Edano, will have 149 incumbents out of a combined 710 lawmakers in parliament's two chambers, compared with the LDP's nearly 400.

"If a party has only 50-60 members, even if it speaks of taking power, it's a joke," Jun Azumi, who handles parliamentary affairs for the CDPJ, told Reuters in an interview. "In that sense, to create a big group is extremely significant."

The merged party will likely cooperate with the Japanese Communist Party in fielding candidates, a stance that helps its chances but may put off some of the DPP's more conservative members.

Azumi said the new party would call for reducing the 10% sales tax to boost the coronavirus-stricken economy and ending reliance on nuclear power, a stance sharply at odds with the LDP's position despite the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), founded in 1996, has long struggled with internal dissent.

"Opposition parties are not even close to being united," said Meiko Nakabayashi, a professor and former DPJ lawmaker."They say they will be, but it's really doubtful."

The Democrats ousted the long-dominant LDP in 2009 but after a troubled three years, lost power.

Katsuya Okada, who led the DPJ from 2004-2005, said unifying members was a big challenge.

"What I struggled with most was to pull the party together," Okada said. "While respecting diversity, each member must bear in mind the importance of coming together ... under a chosen leader."

© Thomson Reuters 2020.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Katsuya Okada, who led the DPJ from 2004-2005, said unifying members was a big challenge.

"What I struggled with most was to pull the party together," Okada said. "While respecting diversity, each member must bear in mind the importance of coming together ... under a chosen leader."

The reason for that is that the DPJ stupidly allowed Nippon Kaigi members to fill its ranks, destroying any viable platform they could project and erasing any real opposition to them.

Koike, accidently created a REAL opposition in Japan, when she disallowed any progressives from joining her hope party. The constitutional party was formed and finally for really the first time in Japan, a real opposition besides the communist party was formed.

The only way forward is for the constitutional party to form an unshakable alliance with the communist party the way the LPD has with Komeito. On top of that, it would be prudent to change the communist party name to the socialist party 社会党 or the Democratic Socialist Party 民社党 or something along those lines to soften their image. But there must be an unshakable alliance between the 2 if they are ever going to beat the LDP.

If the DPP does merge with the constitutional party they should only accept the progressive members and reject the conservatives and NIppon Kaigi supporters. Otherwise they will repeat the mistakes of the DPJ and become an opposition in name only.

Only then will they have a chance of winning.

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Back in Uni there was an instructor from Japan who tried to explain how the Japanese government works. I had to drop the class, as nothing seemed to make any sense. I confess, even today, nothing makes sense about Japanese politics, no offense intended.

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@ Aly Rustom: The issue of ideological tests is one that is sensitive to Edano, because of the Koike/Kibo no To experience. He is opposed to such tests in principle. Fortunately, some of the Nippon Kaigi supporters and other conservatives in DPP have self-sorted themselves out, such as Maehara and Tamaki. In any case, they aren't the only problematic folks.

Here in Iwate we have an MP who wrote Kibo's ideological test when he hopped over from DP. Then when Kibo folded he joined DPP, and then he became independent, and recently he has been maneuvering to join the renewed CDP -- but he's feuding with some DPP members who will join the local CDP kenren (prefectural organization), including power-broker Ozawa Ichiro. Although he is nominally progressive -- he was a brutal questioner of Abe, especially on constitutional issues -- he is quite divisive on personal, opportunistic grounds. Iwate's politics is certainly more fraught than most other prefectures'; but my point is that sometimes one's ideological comrades can still be jerks.

The name change issue for JCP is one where their stubbornness is a point of pride for them. Another, possibly bigger, problem seems to be that some unions allied with DPP really object to working with JCP. It's unclear whether a name change would be sufficient to smooth that over.

@1Glenn: Japanese politics is very easy to make sense of. It kind of boils down to two points. #1, Japan's election system, i.e. the legal apparatus for translating votes into seats in the Kokkai, is essentially the same as the one used in Putin's Russia. The technical name for the system is "mixed member majoritarian." It's one of the types of election system that is the least faithful at representing the propotions of votes cast; and before 1994, Japan's election system was even worse. As a result, this means that LDP/Komeito can win a majority -- or even ⅔ supermajority -- of seats, despite receiving around 35%-40% of votes cast in every election since 2012. I count votes by adding the votes a party receives in single-member districts + the ones they receive in the proportional vote. On that basis, the majority of votes cast are unambiguously against the ruling coalition time after time after time, but they stay in power anyway.

2, unlike any other country of comparable economic heft, Japan allows the PM to call an election whenever the heck he (always he) wants to. This means the ruling party can always choose sometime convenient for itself and/or inconvenient for the opposition. (And BTW, PM's do this even though they don't have constitutional authority to do so. They can do it because the Japan Supreme Court decided 50-something years ago that they would not adjudicate the constitutionality of this practice.) Given this advantage, it's kind of amazing that most votes are cast against the ruling pols nonetheless.

This is why the LDP has held onto power for about 60 of the past 65 years. See? Not so complicated.

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The only way forward is for the constitutional party to form an unshakable alliance with the communist party the way the LPD has with Komeito

Such an alliance sounds to me more like a suicide pact than a viable path to national leadership.

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