Japan opposition parties set to merge to challenge weakened Abe

Public dissatisfaction over PM Shinzo Abe's approach to the coronavirus drove his approval ratings to the lowest levels since he took power. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan's two largest opposition parties are set to merge, as they look to present a more credible alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party ahead of elections that must be held by next year.

Lawmakers with the Democratic Party for the People voted Wednesday (Aug 19) to form a new group with the larger Constitutional Democratic Party, DPFP leader Yuichiro Tamaki told reporters in Tokyo.

The deal could bring together about 150 lawmakers across both houses of parliament, compared with the LDP's almost 400.

The move comes after public dissatisfaction over Abe's approach to the coronavirus helped drive his approval ratings to the lowest levels since he took power about eight years ago.

Abe's unexpected visit to a Tokyo hospital this week has also raised questions about his leadership, even though the premier said he only sought tests to maintain good health.

"The perpetually weak opposition has enabled the LDP to stay in power," said Hiroyuki Kishi, a former trade ministry bureaucrat and now professor at Keio University.

The result was that "reforms have failed to progress and coronavirus policies have been ineffective," he said.

The main opposition parties have so far failed to capitalise on Abe's decline in the polls.

Voters have long indicated that they don't see the groups as a better alternative to the LDP, which has ruled Japan for 60 of the last 65 years.

Details about the new party such as its name and policies remain hazy, but Tamaki said he didn't plan to join, and may form a new group with like-minded lawmakers.

Any opposition party faces an uphill battle, with a poll published by national broadcaster NHK this month showing that 4.2 per cent support the CDP and 0.7 per cent back the DPFP, compared with 35.5 per cent for the ruling LDP.

The former Democratic Party crumbled after losing power in 2012, paving the way for Abe to win six straight elections and become Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

While the opposition is unlikely to take power in the near future - Abe isn't obligated to call an election for more than a year - a larger bloc would be better placed to question the government's policies.

Some in the opposition have called for a reduction in consumption tax to help households hit by the pandemic.

LDP tax chief Akira Amari has repeatedly rejected the idea, saying the funds were needed for the ageing country's social security system.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.