The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and Japan Innovation Party (JIP) have officially merged into a single party counting more than 150 sitting lawmakers in both the upper and lower chambers of the Diet.
Called simply the Democratic Party, as the largest opposition force it has enormous responsibilities to fulfill. First and foremost, to keep politics lively and relevant, it must be a credible alternative to the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition, especially amid the current dominance of the LDP.
This is the third time since the implementation of single-seat constituencies in House of Representatives elections that opposition parties have banded together to stand up to the LDP and turn the Japanese political landscape into something close to a two-party system. That the DPJ agreed to end its own existence and accepted a party name change after some 20 years is surely a sign that its members were worried the party had no future on its own.
At the event marking the DPJ-JIP merger, new Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada told the crowd, "This is our last chance to carry forward politics capable of bringing about a change in government."
Since the launch of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's second Cabinet in December 2012, the various opposition parties have not done nearly enough to make their presence felt. The ruling parties have rolled to stunning victories in every election since, while the turnout has dropped. Behind this is the sad fact that citizens critical of the administration effectively had nowhere to put their vote.
If the DPJ-JIP marriage is no more than a ploy to keep both parties alive, the Democratic Party's future prospects are dim indeed.
With Okada installed as leader and Yukio Edano as secretary-general, the Democratic Party's core structure is a holdover from the DPJ. Even the JIP's former chief Yorihisa Matsuno is a former DPJ denizen. Recent opinion polls show the public has low expectations of the Democratic Party, likely because people see the new party as nothing more than the DPJ in a different outfit.
To strengthen its ability to attract a broad range of voters, including moderate conservatives and centrists, the Democratic Party must learn essential lessons from the failures of the DPJ.
Above all, the new party must not skimp on efforts to create a thoroughgoing basic policy on security, including exactly how it will deal with the exercise of Japan's right to collective self-defense (which will become possible when new security laws go into effect on March 29). The party also cannot overlook developing ideas on sources of government revenue to tackle the widening prosperity gap in Japan. The core principals of the Democratic Party are based in constitutionalism, but its mission statement also says, "Together with the Japanese people, we will plan for a forward-looking constitution." We need something a lot more concrete than that.
To battle the might of the LDP, the Democratic Party sees gaining the sympathy of women and young people as key.
According to Mainichi Shimbun surveys, support for the Abe Cabinet is consistently lower among women than men, likely due to its hawkish policy stance. However, the DPJ didn't have any luck attracting female support either. The appointment of 41-year-old Shiori Yamao as the new Democratic Party's policy chief ought to mean policies that stress women's importance (socially, economically and electorally). At the very least, we would like to see the Democratic Party advocate for female candidate ratio quotas in both national and regional elections.
Eighteen-year-olds are now allowed to vote, but low voter turnout among the young overall is a serious problem. As Japan's population grows older and declines, the Democratic Party ought to organize itself and develop policies that appeal to voters in their 20s.
This summer's House of Councillors election will be the first test of the Democratic Party's ability to establish itself in a potential two-party system, capable of locking horns with the LDP. Regarding the rumored double election for both chambers of the Diet, Okada said, "We will accept the challenge." The leading opposition party needs to set out its public commitments, and it needs to do so very soon.