The upcoming general election will be a head-to-head race between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the newly established Kibo no To (Party of Hope) as the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) is set to merge into the new force.
In a dramatic move, the main opposition party chose to be absorbed by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's new national party. The DP apparently deemed that if the two parties were to field separate candidates in single-seat constituencies, they would compete for votes cast by those critical of the government and this would only benefit Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Close attention is now focused on whether Koike will run in the House of Representatives election scheduled for Oct. 22 as a candidate for prime minister. The DP leadership began last-ditch efforts to form a consensus within the party on the decision to merge into Kibo no To as Koike and others held a news conference on Sept. 27 to officially announce the formation of the new party.
DP President Seiji Maehara told Deputy President Yukio Edano on the afternoon of Sept. 27 that he wanted to allow the party's candidates to run in the lower house election under the endorsement of Kibo no To.
"I'd like all of our candidates, if they wish, to run in the race on the ticket of Kibo no To," Maehara was quoted as saying in their meeting. Edano was surprised at the humiliating proposal.
Under Maehara's plan, almost all DP candidates would ask Kibo no To to officially endorse them in the election, and if Koike's party complies they will run on the ticket of the new party. In other words, the long-established No. 1 opposition party would bow to Koike's newly launched party, which has not even drawn up its platform.
However, there is no guarantee that Kibo no To will endorse all the DP candidates who wish to run on its ticket.
Maehara told Edano that he felt that Koike would not field her party's candidates against Akira Nagatsuma, head of the DP's Election Campaign Committee, or Edano in their respective constituencies.
Still, concerns remain within the DP as to whether Koike, who pursues reform-minded conservatism, will accept Edano and Nagatsuma, liberal legislators who are in favor of promoting the formation of a united front with the Japanese Communist Party, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party in the election.
However, even if the DP were to reject Maehara's proposal, it would be inevitable for the DP to see more party legislators defect to Koike's party. In that case, those who remain with the DP would have a slim chance of winning seats.
Edano, who sensed that the merger would be unavoidable as long as many of his fellow party legislators can run under the endorsement of Kibo no To, told Maehara that he accepts the proposal, saying, "I won't obstruct your move."
Maehara responded, "I'd like you to cooperate with me," and bowed.
According to sources close to the DP, Maehara made the tough decision when he and Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) President Rikio Kozu met with Koike on the night of Sept. 26.
At the meeting, Koike told Maehara, "We won't rule out our endorsement of candidates just because they are DP members." Maehara thus sensed that most DP candidates would be able to run on the ticket of Kibo no To.
Maehara then persuaded Edano, former DP Secretary-General and former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and other influential members of the party to accept the merger.
Rengo, a key supporting body for the largest opposition party, has decided to seek to sign policy agreement with Kibo no To if the merger goes smoothly. If many DP candidates fail to secure endorsement from Koike's party, the country's largest labor body will then back those who will remain with the DP.
Koike, who will battle in the general election even though her new party is not prepared to field many candidates across the country, can take advantage of DP's regional chapters and funding abilities and secure many candidates the DP had intended to field.
However, Kibo no To could be criticized as a "second Democratic Party" if the DP merges into the new party altogether.
Regarding the DP's decision to merge with Kibo no To, Koike coolly said, "They'll decide what to do," when she met reporters on the evening of Sept. 27.
Kibo no To is poised to refuse to field any candidate who is opposed to constitutional revision or calls for the abolition of the security-related legislation that has opened the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way.
"The question is whether DP members can follow our extremely realistic security policy. I doubt (those who had previously belonged to the Social Democratic Party) will follow our policy," Koike said.
A sense of displeasure at Maehara's proposal is smoldering among long-serving DP legislators because many of these lawmakers want to run on the DP's ticket.
The DP's House of Councillors caucus is poised to merge with Kibo no To after the lower house election. However, DP members of the upper chamber, many of whom are backed by labor unions, criticized Maehara's decision.
"The move represents nothing but the leader's dictatorship," one of them said.
"We can't agree with the decision," another stated.
However, an overwhelming majority of DP members are leaning toward accepting the party's merger with Koike's new force. A growing number of DP's lower house members have even expressed hope that Koike will step down as Tokyo governor and run in the general election.
"There's a high chance that Koike will run in the poll. The upcoming election is going to be a head-on clash between Koike and Abe," a DP legislator said.
"If more LDP legislators leave the party, it will lead to a snowball effect. Japan may have its first female prime minister through a change of power," another said.
A senior DP legislator expressed mixed feelings about the move. "I had never imagined the DP, which could fall apart at this rate, would be saved by Ms. Koike, with whom we confronted in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election."