TWO of Japan’s largest opposition parties are merging, but countering Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s legislative majority will prove to be an uphill battle. The new Democratic Party, announced March 27, holds around 20 percent of the seats in Japan’s lower house and 25 percent of the upper house, where support from leaning independents could bump its influence to 28 percent. But even though patchwork coalitions like the new Democratic Party have driven the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from power on two previous occasions, the merger will not guarantee the opposition’s success in upper house elections set for July. Moreover, if the Democratic Party does gain power in the upper house, it will have to contend with an LDP supermajority in the lower house, limiting its ability to block the ruling coalition’s policies. At most, the new opposition party can only hope to keep the ruling party from sweeping the July elections.
Despite his unpopularity, Abe has been able to push his policies through Japan’s Diet thanks to a fragmented opposition. Elections in 2012 swept the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Japan’s largest opposition party, from power. On the right, the Japanese Innovation Party (JIP), Japan’s third-largest opposition group, has been unstable, often losing members to various splinter factions. A break with the party’s Osaka wing late last year cost the JIP a total of 20 lawmakers in both houses. Because of the opposition’s fractiousness, Abe’s party managed to pass controversial legislation in September 2015 that reinterpreted Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, allowing Japan to practice collective self-defense and expand its military activities abroad.
The “Block” Party
Having failed to block the collective self-defense law, DPJ and JIP leaders sought to assemble a political force capable of challenging the ruling coalition. And after protracted negotiations, the two parties agreed that they would have to unite to counter the LDP. To that end, the parties formed a joint legislative group in the winter of 2015 to discuss a formal merger. Then, early this year, they established informal alliances against the LDP with the Japanese Communist Party and two minor opposition parties.
The opposition coalition’s primary objective is to prevent Abe’s coalition from securing a two-thirds majority in the July elections, which would enable the prime minister to amend the constitution, including Article 9. Because the ruling coalition is still 24 seats shy of a two-thirds majority, the Democratic Party’s goal may be attainable. But cohesion will be more difficult to achieve. In merging, both parties have made compromises contentious among their respective constituents. The DPJ and JIP disagree on constitutional revisions. Even settling on a name for the party proved to be an undertaking. Moreover, JIP members worry that the DPJ’s interests will outweigh their own and cost them seats in future elections. Because of these worries, JIP members could be co-opted by a rival party, such as JIP’s breakaway Osaka wing or even the ruling coalition. The distrust between the component parties will limit the new Democratic Party’s ability to oppose Abe’s coalition.
Barriers to effective opposition
Whatever the outcome of the July elections, the new party will struggle to thwart ruling coalition legislation. The Japanese Diet’s lower house is much more powerful than its upper house. And since the ruling coalition’s LDP and Komeito parties maintain solid control of the Diet’s lower house, the new party will be unable to impede the prime minister in pursuing his legislative goals. If the upper house fails to vote on a bill passed in the lower house within 60 days, the bill is sent back to the lower house, where its fate would be determined by the ruling coalition’s supermajority. In 2015, this supermajority ensured Abe’s collective self-defense bill would pass even without an upper house vote. Thus, even if the Democratic Party keeps Abe from reaching his two-thirds majority in the upper house, the party will, at best, only be able to slow his legislation down, not stop it. Furthermore, many Japanese voters find the Democratic Party’s insurmountable squabbles off-putting. Compared with the flawed but effective LDP government, the Democratic Party would not offer a viable alternative.
The Democratic Party’s best chance to change Japan’s political status quo would be to sweep the next elections in the lower house. But those elections are not scheduled to happen until December 2018, barring a call from the ruling coalition to hold them earlier. Around the time that DPJ and JIP were discussing their merger, LDP representatives reportedly did consider moving up the date for lower house elections to coincide with the upper house vote. It suggests that at least some of the ruling coalition feels confident in its position, even as it contends with its new opposition party. After all, the ruling parties would not call for early elections if they felt they would not perform well in them. Even so, because the summer elections will be the first elections since the voting age in Japan was lowered, ruling party leaders are unlikely to take their chances on an early vote.
It is unclear what impact the new opposition party will have on Japanese politics. Though the Democratic Party could very well keep the prime minister from winning his two-thirds majority in the upper house, rifts in the party will hinder its ability to challenge his agenda. At the same time, Japanese voters are dissatisfied with the recently enacted security legislation that Abe’s coalition passed. If the Democratic Party can overcome its internal discord and turn that dissatisfaction into electoral support, the party might have a shot at long-term success. But for now, the new party is little more than the sum of its parts.
© 2016 STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE