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Democratic Party risks losing relevance as it dithers on election alliances

Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara addresses a party executive meeting in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Sept. 19, 2017. (Mainichi)

One issue weighing on the Democratic Party (DP) as it rushes to prepare for a likely October general election is how much distance there is between it and other opposition parties on the Constitution.

New DP leader Seiji Maehara is looking to ally with a new political party forming around House of Representatives lawmaker and former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member Masaru Wakasa. However, with his insistence on the need for debate on altering the Constitution to make the Diet unicameral, Wakasa has opened a wide policy gap with the DP.

Meanwhile, Maehara is reluctant to form an election partnership with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which holds that the pacifist Constitution should be preserved. And JCP leader Kazuo Shii has panned Wakasa's nascent party as a "supplement to the Abe administration."

If Maehara's DP continues to dither on its choice of allies as a general election looms, it could very well lose its status as the primary vehicle for criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, weakening its political stage presence.

In a Sept. 19 interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, Maehara said that "the (DP's) thinking on the consumption tax increase and on the Japan-U.S. security treaty is fundamentally different (from that of the JCP). It would be difficult to run an administration together." Furthermore, there are worries in the party that cooperating with the JCP would scare away conservative and independent voters, and the issue is one of the main motivations for the string of defections to hit the DP in recent weeks.

Maehara had expected to start his stewardship of the DP by shoring up a trilateral alliance with the Liberal and Social Democratic (SDP) parties, thereby gaining the upper hand in negotiations with the JCP. However, a Sept. 17 leaders' meeting among the DP, Liberals and SDP was canceled when news broke that Abe was planning to dissolve the lower house later this month. Since some Social Democrats worry that linking up with the DP will eventually lead to the SDP's absorption by the larger party, moves toward forming an alliance between opposition parties are being delayed.

Amid these circumstances, according to one conservative DP lawmaker, many party members are "voicing in unison" their expectations that the JCP will voluntarily withdraw election candidates in certain constituencies to reduce competition among opposition parties. In response, the JCP's Shii told a Sept. 18 news conference that "common policies" were required for his party to back a single opposition candidate strategy.

"We will combine forces (with other parties) when we agree on issues important to the people of Japan," said Shii. "Rather than looking for differences, many points of agreement will emerge if we search for them."

At a meeting of party executives on Sept. 19, the JCP appointed Diet Policy Commission chief Keiji Kokuta as the first ever chairman of its election strategy committee, which will oversee coordination of election candidates with other opposition parties. By appointing Kokuta to that post, the JCP is urging the DP to form a united front with the JCP in the election.

JCP secretariat chief Akira Koike told reporters at a news conference that day, "The responsibility for coordinating election candidates among the opposition parties will fall to Mr. Kokuta. He is conducting energetic discussions behind the scenes."

Meanwhile, Maehara cannot hide his high expectations for an alliance with Wakasa's nascent party. In the Sept. 19 Mainichi interview, the DP leader said, "If we can agree on policy principles, I'd like to cooperate with many different parties." However, in a Sept. 15 interview, Wakasa told the Mainichi, "The DP is constrained by ties with deep roots," adding, "As long as the DP does not change, cooperating with them for the election will be difficult."

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