News analysis

Japan's opposition faces major realignment

New parties add vibrancy to politics, but split anti-LDP vote

As the ruling centre-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) romped to another resounding victory at the general election on Sunday, it leaves in its wake a major realignment of the opposition.

For nearly two decades, the LDP's top rival had been the Democratic Party (DP), which unseated the LDP and took power from 2009 to 2012. Yet its years in power were tumultuous, with three prime ministers resigning one after another after losing party backing over unpopular policies.

The DP could never quite recover from its time in power, hobbled by its incoherent platform. The public spats and power struggles within the big tent of politicians with different ideologies saw its public support sinking to single digits.

"The DP was created by ideologically disparate political groups to challenge the LDP," wrote Associate Professor Toshiya Takahashi of Shoin University in a comment. "But its organisational structure was weak."

This election, conservative former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, elected DP chief a month ago, tried to shake up the status quo with a major gambit. The DP did not field any candidates, instead running under Kibo no To, a new centre-right party formed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, 65.

But Ms Koike turned away left-leaning members of the DP who could not stand by its conservative platforms - including revising the war-renouncing Constitution.

Days later, the centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) was set up, led by former chief Cabinet secretary Yukio Edano, 53. It embraces policies that empower citizens rather than the state.


Kibo no To leader, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike (in green), with Mr Seiji Maehara, leader of the Democratic Party, at an election rally last week. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The rise of these two opposition parties, which have more clearly defined political positions than the DP, has reshaped Japan's opposition landscape.

The CDP won 55 seats, having fielded 78 candidates, to become the largest opposition force in the Lower House of Parliament. Its 192,000 followers on Twitter also won it the social media battle - surpassing the LDP's 132,000.

The rise of these two opposition parties, which have more clearly defined political positions than the DP, has reshaped Japan's opposition landscape... Pundits said the rise of new parties will lead to more spirited opposition discourse on unique ideological and policy platforms.

Kibo no To won just 50 seats despite fielding 235 candidates.

Pundits said the rise of new parties will lead to more spirited opposition discourse on unique ideological and policy platforms.

"Competition between the conservative centre-right and liberal centre-left parties has been restored with the launch of CDP and this is necessary for healthy party politics," said Dr Yu Uchiyama of the University of Tokyo.

But it also means the splitting of the "anti-LDP" vote, and it remains to be seen if the nascent parties can individually grow into formidable forces that can take down the LDP.

Dr Sota Kato of the Tokyo Foundation think-tank said he expects the various parties to "at least electorally collaborate before the next election", in the light of the huge LDP win.

But any holdouts for the elusive "two-party system" with the LDP and a main opposition will be disappointed. Both Mr Edano and Ms Koike have poured cold water on the possibility.

"It should not be just about making up numbers in a power struggle... Otherwise we will quickly lose public confidence," Mr Edano said at a party caucus on Tuesday.

He added that he wants to grow the party, rather than enter a marriage of convenience with other parties - including the DP, which has 49 lawmakers in Parliament's Upper Chamber.

Meanwhile, the DP will have to elect a new chief to take the waning force forward, after Mr Maehara - who won his seat in Kyoto as an independent - said he would resign to take responsibility for the failed gambit at opposition unity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Japan's opposition faces major realignment'. Print Edition | Subscribe