Election 2021

What’s Next for Japan’s Opposition?

It’s hard to imagine a worse outcome for Japan’s opposition after suffering a major blow in the general election on October 31. Though outright victory was never a likely outcome, an increase of a few dozen seats or more would have provided the opposition with momentum going into upper house elections next year. It would have also provided confirmation that their strategy was paying off. But despite coordinating candidates with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and JCP both lost 13 seats, a result that defied political forecasts. Voter turnout stayed at a cool 55 percent despite the unpopularity of then prime minister Suga Yoshihide and the effect of his COVID-19 policy on people’s livelihoods. Young people, known for their stubbornly low turnout, overwhelmingly chose the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over the alternatives. The result shows that LDP dominance experienced under former prime minister Abe Shinzo’s second premiership from 2012-2020 appears to be more permanent than many expected – and if the opposition wants to overcome this reality, it will have to be very careful about which lessons it chooses to learn.

For one, the strategy to coordinate between the CDP, JCP, the Social Democratic Party, and Reiwa Shinsengumi was arguably successful. If cooperation helped to create more competitive races, then it’s proof that cooperation should be deepened and candidates better prepared. Conversely, if the JCP’s presence cost the CDP the votes it needed to win then it needs to rethink both its alliance but also the electoral viability of its more left-wing policies. Ideally, this election would have settled this debate. In the end, the coordinated opposition managed to create more competitive races and even some stunning upsets. The defeat of senior LDP lawmakers such as secretary general Amari Akira in Kanagawa and Ishihara Nobuteru in Tokyo electoral division 8 demonstrated that the LDP’s hold on power is more tenuous than it often appears.

So then why did this matter so little in the total tally? The sudden rise in votes for the Japan Innovation Party (JIP) gives us some clues. So-called ‘third force’ parties tend to increase their share of seats when distaste for the current choice between government and the opposition is high. With the JCP now completely tucked into the opposition blanket, JIP stood in many districts as the lone protest vote. With voters flocking to JIP, especially outside of their home base of Osaka, it seems clear that voters are once again rejecting the opposition and looking for alternatives that offer a more clear break with the status quo of the political mainstream.

The suggestion of going all on cooperation still has merit. One thing this election failed to do was to properly prepare single-member districts for a unified opposition candidate. The leadership’s fear of backlash from anti-JCP unions kept them from announcing the collaboration until right after the election was announced. The CDP depended on what political commentator Nakajima Takeshi called a “shock doctrine” in an issue of Shûkan Kinyôbi which is the concept of waiting until the last possible moment to push through final details without too much push-back.

Abandoning the JCP is not a realistic option for a progressive opposition party

Critics of the CDP’s alliance with the JCP will use this opportunity to claim that voters turned away from the opposition because it was too cozy with communists. This, if true, is a non-starter. Abandoning the JCP is not a realistic proposition for a progressive opposition party. In Tokyo alone, the presence of a JCP candidate in many of the close districts would have literally decimated the CDP candidate’s vote share and eliminated any possibility for an opposition win. Nevertheless the argument will be persuasive to the party who are looking to reorganize its policy preferences more to the right and see cooperation as an obstacle. For example, the Democratic Party for the People announced that they will no longer work as closely together with the rest of the opposition in parliament and are now preparing to instead work together with the JIP to focus on getting policy through the Diet, starting with a proposal to freeze the tax levy on rising gasoline prices.

Then there is the question who should lead the CDP. This election marked the end of a long reorganization of the opposition under the leadership of Edano Yukio who is the longest serving leader of an opposition party since the end of the Socialist Party. The past four years have been surprisingly stable and Edano deserves credit for that. But at the same time that stability is partly because there was no general election where his leadership and vision could be put to the test – until now. 

Edano’s replacement will be decided at the end of this month. Four candidates have collected the requisite 20 recommendations to run for the leader of the party. Ogawa Junya, came to national prominence following last year’s documentary Why Can’t You Be Prime Minister? and the various books he’s been a part of in the past year. Meanwhile Izumi Kenta, chair of the Policy Research Council and the youngest candidate, has more sway to throw the party behind his vision. Nishimura Chinami and Osaka Seiji, both founding members of the CDP back in 2017, have presented themselves as continuity candidates with plans for investments in education and protecting vulnerable regions from market forces. None of them provide particularly distinct visions but they generally agree on the need to properly define what it is the party stands for while also vowing to make the party more welcoming to people with different ideas under the common goal of winning a national election. At this stage they have not been willing to speak too definitively on the cooperation issue so far.

Progress on gender equality in politics is one advantage the CDP could take over the ruling LDP coalition. The fact that there is a female candidate at all is a relief for the CDP given their ostensible support for gender equality. Until Nishimura decided to run relatively late in the process there were hardly any female candidates whose names were being floated. Only 26 of the 140 CDP Diet members are women, and only half of those are in the more important lower house. Indeed, had they not lost their former Diet affairs chief Tsujimoto Kiyomi in this election they would have had a strong contender on hand. The significant backslide in female representation in the Diet and the CDP’s own difficulty finding female candidates means a female leader would both offer a possible future prime minister as well as simply make the party look like it’s practicing what it’s preaching.

Whoever leads the opposition next, a commitment to building a grassroots organization should be a priority

Whoever leads the party next will have to reinvigorate its original commitment to grassroots organization which has languished. The LDP wins elections largely because it is the party in power, but also because its regional candidates are deeply embedded in their communities. Even when regard for the party is low, people are simply still more inclined to vote for the devil they know. Breaking that hurdle is one of the opposition’s biggest, albeit less visible, tasks. Although CDP started out in 2017 with a message of building a bottom-up structure, very little of that was realized in the intervening years with power instead being concentrated in the leadership.  One notable case led to a confrontation with Ozawa Ichiro, head of the Iwate chapter, on whether the chapter or Tokyo should decide on the prefecture’s 2021 lower house candidate. This disconnect between the party’s stated values and its actions is a consequence of the leadership’s attempt to manage the liberal and conservative wings of the party, but the disconnect continues to stand in the way of a sustainable strategy that allows regional chapters to themselves find and nurture candidates, and that has to come from the bottom-up.

In the long story of the opposition’s realignment, this election simply does not offer a clear signal for how to move forward with much that still fluid, like leadership and grassroots development. And just over six months until the upper house elections gives the opposition only the smallest of margins for determining a new action plan. Still, the question about what to do with the alliance with the JCP remains and it will take decisive leadership on the issue – something Edano ultimately could not provide – and a serious attempt to reflect its ideals in the composition and organization of the party. That also means risking Edano’s balance between centrists and progressives, but perhaps that’s now become a gambit worth taking.

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Romeo Marcantuoni is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University. He earned his MA and BA in Japanese Studies at KU Leuven, Belgium. His research centers on Japan's progressive parties.

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