TOKYO • Japan's biggest and third-largest opposition parties have agreed to merge and reach out to smaller rivals in what they hope will be a first step towards building an alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's behemoth Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The merger of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) with the smaller Japan Innovation Party poses no immediate threat to Mr Abe's ruling bloc, but the LDP's support is more fragile than recent election wins suggest and polls show that many voters would opt for a credible rival if they felt one existed.
"We want to respond to the voices of those with anxiety and doubts about the Abe administration," DPJ leader Katsuya Okada told a news conference announcing the merger yesterday. The merged party will be launched in March with a new name.
The DPJ surged to power for the first time in 2009 but was ousted by Mr Abe's LDP-led bloc three years later after a reign that left a lasting image of incompetence and infighting.
Mr Abe, pledging to end decades of economic stagnation and to boost Japan's global profile, has since led his party to two more big election wins. Many experts, however, attribute his longevity at least partly to voter perception of a lack of a viable alternative.
"If there were a unified opposition, the LDP is vulnerable," said Professor Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
In the short term, the merger, along with proposed election cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party, could make it harder for the LDP and its allies to win the two-thirds majority in July's Upper House polls that they need to advance Mr Abe's cherished goal of revising the pacifist Constitution.
The LDP and its junior partner, the Komeito party, won a two-thirds "super majority" in the December 2014 Lower House election, but the turnout was a record low at about 53 per cent.
More recently, Mr Abe's voter support, shaken by scandals and economic woes, fell 7 points to below 50 per cent in a weekend poll.
For the DPJ, however, overcoming public memories of its perceived failures will be tough.
"They have to gain competence, or a semblance of competence, rather than just change the name," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.