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New opposition party not fully prepared for possible double election

Legislators of the new opposition Democratic Party boost their morale during its inaugural convention in Tokyo's Minato Ward on March 27, 2016. (Mainichi)

The Democratic Party (DP), a new opposition party launched on March 27 through the merger of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Japan Innovation Party (JIP), aims to defy the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s dominance in the Diet in this summer's House of Councillors election.

With the possibility of a double election for both chambers of the Diet being raised, however, the DP is not yet fully prepared to take on a bigger challenge, with no party candidates planned yet for many constituencies.

"We will face the election aiming for victory," DP leader Katsuya Okada told a press conference following the party's inaugural convention on March 27. "It is my belief that the party leader should be responsible for national elections," he continued, suggesting that he would resign as party leader in case the DP loses in the upper house election, or in the possible double election.

The DP will face its first elections in April -- the by-elections in the Hokkaido No. 5 constituency and the Kyoto No. 3 constituency. Because the LDP is not fielding its candidate in the Kyoto constituency, the Hokkaido poll will be the first litmus test for the new party.

As the opposition candidate in the Hokkaido constituency will be jointly supported by four parties including the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the results of the by-election may well affect the coordination of candidates among the opposition forces in the upper house race.

"A solid result (in the by-election) will positively affect the upper house election and the (possible) double election," Okada told reporters, signaling his resolve to muster all his party's powers in the campaigning.

However, the DP is lagging behind in planning on whom to field in the upper house race, or in the possible double election. There are 32 upper house electoral districts where one seat each will be up for grabs in the upcoming election, and how the opposition camp can fare in those districts holds the key to the overall election results.

After the JCP decided to withdraw its candidates in some of those districts, the number of constituencies with one seat each where multiple opposition candidates are to compete with each other in the upcoming election has dropped from the initial figure of over 20 to 13. As for the DP, there are only 21 districts where candidates were informally approved or endorsed by the former DPJ, while there is no constituency with former JIP-backed candidates. There are also six constituencies where only JCP-backed candidates are set to run, such as Gunma and Yamaguchi prefectures.

With regard to the possible lower house election, there remain many constituencies where the DP has yet to decide whom to field. Among the entire 295 single-seat constituencies across the country, the party has decided on candidates to field in only around 190 constituencies, or about two-thirds. There are only several districts -- including the Nagano No. 3 constituency -- where candidates need to be unified from among those including incumbent legislators of the former DPJ or JIP and new party branch heads. "Rather than the issue of forming a united front with other opposition parties, it is more essential for us to fill those vacant constituencies," said DP Diet affairs chair Jun Azumi.

The DP's new poster released on March 27 bears the slogan, "Move forward with the people" -- in contrast to the DPJ's former, self-deprecating poster reading, "I don't like the DPJ, but I want to protect democracy," released in January. The DP's party color is blue, also a departure from the DPJ's red.

About half of the former JIP legislators who joined the DP are "boomerangs" as they had once left the DPJ when the party split in 2012. Yorihisa Matsuno, who headed the now-defunct JIP, apologized during the March 27 convention, saying, "I made party members feel unpleasant," referring to his own defection from the DPJ in the past. He explained that he asked not to be included in the DP's leadership in order to avoid undermining the party's fresh image.

Rikio Kozu, president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), addressed the DP's convention, "The party should not trade its soul for immediate populism," warning against simply counting on the effect of the new party's inauguration.

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