The rise and fall of Japan’s opposition

Author: Kevin Placek, SSRC

On 27 August, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto abruptly announced his resignation from the Japan Innovation Party (JIP). Hashimoto, who founded the party, has arguably been the single most important driving force behind the JIP’s electoral success and its emergence as the second-largest opposition party after the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). His resignation not only throws the party into disarray but could also usher in a wave of political realignment as Japan’s opposition parties respond.

The immediate cause of the split was a somewhat trivial disagreement over whether the current Secretary-General, Mito Kakizawa, should be forced to resign. But it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem: internal disagreement over the party’s direction and strategy.

The JIP (and its predecessor, the Japan Restoration Party) originally emerged out of the regional party, Osaka Restoration Association. Its electoral base remains tied to the surrounding Kansai region. After merging with the Unity Party in 2014, and absorbing a number of defectors from DPJ and other parties, JIP’s centre of gravity has gradually begun to shift away from Osaka.

Hashimoto himself stepped down as leader in late 2014 in order to focus on his signature policy, transforming Osaka prefecture into a metropolitan government. But the narrow defeat of the Osaka Metropolis plan in a referendum on 17 May, and Hashimoto’s subsequent decision to retire from politics when his term as mayor ends in December, has only led to greater uncertainty over the party’s future.

With its flagship initiative defeated at the regional level and an overwhelming number of its members and supporters concentrated in one area, the party faces an uphill battle expanding beyond Osaka. A geographical divide also cuts through the party itself. There is a split between JIP’s Osaka and Tokyo members over whether to support the Abe government or cooperate more closely with the DPJ. On the political spectrum, JIP sits uncomfortably between the two major parties: it is too economically liberal to draw supporters away from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but too socially hawkish to entice moderate voters from the DPJ.

In this context, maintaining party discipline and dampening political pragmatism is exceptionally difficult. When an overwhelming majority of the party is made up of first-term and second-term Diet members with limited political experience, a looming election only increases the temptation to flee. A lot of them owe their electoral success to Hashimoto’s popularity and now find themselves in a precarious position.

After assuming leadership of JIP in May, Yorihisa Matsuno made clear that his priority is political realignment. He immediately called for the establishment of a new political force of at least 100 lower house lawmakers by the end of 2015 and moved the JIP closer to the DPJ. Matsuno, who held a number of important posts within the DPJ before joining the JIP in 2012, has also been critical of the government’s national security policy. But both of these moves have been strongly resisted by Hashimoto and the Osaka-based members, who are opposed to cooperating with the DPJ and largely support Abe’s security legislation.

Hashimoto’s resignation has made life a lot easier for Matsuno. Freed from Hashimoto’s constant interference, he can now pursue realignment with the DPJ with fewer constraints. On 31 August, Matsuno and DPJ President Katsuya Okada agreed to set up a framework for electoral and policy coordination after the current Diet session ends. Although the two parties are relatively close on national security and financial reform, considerable gaps remain over issues like labour reform and the consumption tax.

The JIP is set to hold its presidential election in November and political realignment will be central to Matsuno’s re-election efforts. If he can secure the support of at least 27 of the 40 JIP members in the lower house then a merger with the DPJ (which has 73 members) will be enough to make up his new political force of 100 lawmakers.

But this, of course, depends on the fate of the party. After announcing his departure, Hashimoto vowed to transform his regional party, Osaka Restoration Association, into a national one by the end of 2015. Formal plans are expected to be announced in October with Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui most likely to lead the new party.

Taken together, these developments suggest JIP is most likely to split before ever becoming a truly cohesive or electable new political force. Matsuno and the mostly Tokyo-based members of JIP will probably merge with the DPJ in one form or another, while Hashimoto and his supporters will try once again to create a national political party from Osaka.

A recurring feature of Japan’s last few election cycles has been an obsessive fixation by both politicians and the media on political realignment. Yet those very same politicians have failed to grasp the underlying reasons why such mergers have, more often than not, failed. The most obvious is timing. Merging abruptly before an election may add some political momentum and attract media coverage but it can’t make up for the long-term policy planning, institution building and personnel development required for electoral success and effective governance. Maintaining the interest of voters over the long term is exceedingly difficult without clear policy ideas.

Unfortunately, a lot of Japan’s opposition parties lack the institutions and resources necessary not only to field competitive candidates but simply to manage internal differences. Overcoming these significant hurdles would do more to ensure the emergence of a cohesive and electable opposition than endlessly pursuing political realignment.

Kevin Placek is a senior program assistant for the Abe Fellowship Program, Social Science Research Council.