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DPJ-JIP merger agreement a step toward upper house race

The agreement between the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and Japan Innovation Party (JIP) to merge into a single party was prompted by their leaders' fears that they would lose any prospect of winning the summer House of Councillors election if their talks collapsed.

    Nevertheless, voters do not appear to place high expectations on the merger, as the two parties have failed to regain support from the public.

    The accord was reached during talks between DPJ leader Katsuya Okada and JIP leader Yorihisa Matsuno in Tokyo on the night of Feb. 22. In the meeting, Okada and Matsuno also agreed that the two parties would simultaneously launch intraparty procedures on Feb. 23 for the purpose of merging into a single party and other processes.

    A source who attended the meeting said the talks were a mere formality, noting that the two leaders had reached an unofficial agreement.

    The leaders of the DPJ and the JIP struck the deal after compromising over two sticking points.

    Okada decided to change the DPJ's name -- a life-or-death matter for DPJ legislators seeking re-election in the upcoming upper house race. On the other hand, Matsuno agreed that his party would be absorbed by the DPJ, a plan that former JIP leader Kenji Eda stiffly opposed, even by threatening to split the JIP.

    The two sides began full-scale merger talks behind the scenes after a DPJ convention on Jan. 30 -- in which party legislators agreed to leave the DPJ's response to merger negotiations with the JIP entirely to the discretion of Okada. The two leaders secretly met on Feb. 1, 5, 10 and 12 over the issue. However, their talks became deadlocked after they failed to narrow a gap over how their parties should merge and whether the DPJ's name should be changed.

    The deadlock was broken on Feb. 19 when the opposition Japanese Communist Party (JCP) announced its decision in principle to abandon fielding its own candidates in constituencies where only one seat is up for grabs in the upper chamber election. Its move was intended to promote election cooperation among opposition parties.

    Okada and Matsuno feared that if the DPJ-JIP merger negotiations were to collapse while the five opposition parties were promoting election cooperation, it would adversely affect the chance of opposition parties increasing their strength in the upper house race. Moves to promote election cooperation among opposition parties that were gaining momentum encouraged the two leaders to reach a merger accord.

    While the DPJ and JIP remain divided over some issues, they also share common challenges. The approval rating for the DPJ remains low even after Akira Amari stepped down as Economic Revitalization Minister over a money scandal. Some DPJ legislators said Okada should step down as party leader if the party wins fewer than 20 seats in the upcoming election, just like in the previous upper house race in 2013.

    The JIP has failed to show enough of a presence in the political world since those loyal to former co-leader Toru Hashimoto broke away from the party and founded a new party called "Initiatives from Osaka."

    The two parties feared that their future would be endangered unless they fought in the upper house race with a renewed image.

    Okada boldly agreed to change the DPJ's name because he places priority on changing the party's image in the run-up to the upper chamber election rather than sticking to its traditional name.

    Matsuno also reached a compromise with Okada in a desperate bid to survive. "We'll create a new political party with a new image," he told executives of his party, emphasizing that the JIP must start over by forming a completely new party with the DPJ.

    Still, some members within both parties are dissatisfied with the agreement to change the DPJ's name and the way the two parties will merge into a single party.

    Even Okada and Matsuno remain divided over how they would name the new party. Okada says the two parties will consider names including one with "Democratic," while Matsuno insists that a new party should have a completely new name.

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