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Japan after Abe

Japan's fractured opposition unites as party of 140-plus lawmakers

Leader Edano pledges to offer a viable alternative with eye on general election

Yukio Edano, left, was elected Sept. 10 to lead the new Constitutional Democratic Party. (Photo by Karina Noka)

TOKYO -- Japan's jumble of opposition parties are poised to present a united front by creating a party with more than 140 lawmakers, seeking to offer a clear alternative for those dissatisfied with the country's current leadership.

The new Constitutional Democratic Party, to be formed officially next Tuesday, will consist of nearly all members from the existing party of the same name, as well as most of the current Democratic Party for the People and many independents, including former Prime Minister Yoshihiro Noda. Both existing parties will be dissolved.

Yukio Edano, who heads the existing Constitutional Democrats, was elected Thursday as the new party's first leader. He immediately took aim at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is also in the process of selecting a new leader after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation.

"We will take on the LDP, a formidable rival, with a sense of urgency," Edano said. 

He called on the new prime minister, who will be elected in the parliament from the LDP next Wednesday, to hold a debate on coronavirus response measures and disaster relief.

As for the lower house election that will be held within a year, Edano pledged to "become an alternative choice for the people and do the utmost to gain public support."

The new party will have a total of 149 members -- slightly fewer than the 156 that the former Democratic Party had when it was created in a similar merger back in 2016 -- but it will hold 106 lower house seats to the old Democrats' 96.

Edano has long aimed to form a party with more than 100 lower house members to be a viable alternative to the LDP.

The last opposition party to reach that mark was the LDP itself, which held 118 seats before the 2012 election in which it regained power. Before that, the Democratic Party of Japan had 115 seats ahead of the 2009 election that briefly handed control to the longtime opposition.

The new party has drawn a clear contrast with the LDP in terms of policy. While Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the front-runner to succeed Abe in the top job, has said that "the foundation of a nation is self-aid, mutual aid and public aid," Edano says it is the government's role to provide support.

"A politician can't talk about 'self-aid.' We have a different stance," he told reporters Wednesday.

The opposition has laid out policies to help middle- and low-income households, including a temporary consumption tax cut. Previous opposition party platforms tended to "stress individual responsibility and self-aid; our position this time is clearly different," Edano has said.

The new party will also seek to pursue a different route from the Abe government on economic policy, with higher taxes on the wealthy and levies on companies with large cash hoards.

But critics say the new coalition is just a rehashed version of the Democratic Party of Japan, which was the main opposition party until 2016. The opposition has gone through numerous mergers and splits during the seven-plus years of Abe's current run, while the ruling LDP has enjoyed stability.

Edano's grip on the coalition is not solid, either. He received 107 votes in the leadership race. But his proposal to name it the Constitutional Democratic Party received 94, indicating that there are some who are not necessarily on the same page as him.

A key task for the new party ahead of the next general election will be coordinating with other opposition forces on candidates. More conservative members of the Democratic Party for the People, like its leader, Yuichiro Tamaki, are breaking off to form their own party. But the opposition will need to unite behind a single candidate for each seat to maximize its chances of beating the LDP.

Failing to coordinate could mean that opposition candidates end up competing with one another instead of with the LDP. For example, the main opposition party of the time split ahead of the 2017 general election and ended up cannibalizing anti-LDP votes.

"Our doors are open to everybody who is interested in creating a political force separate from the LDP," Edano has said, urging cooperation from Tamaki's new party as well as smaller parties in the next election.

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