TOKYO -- The chief of Japan's leading opposition Democratic Party said Wednesday that he will pursue a de-facto merger with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's new party to form a united front against the dominant Liberal Democratic Party in the coming election.
Under the plan Seiji Maehara proposed to party lawmakers, Democratic candidates in next month's snap election would run under the banner of Koike's Kibo no To, or "Party of Hope," either by receiving its endorsement or by switching parties entirely. Maehara himself could run as an independent.
How to handle the affiliations of incumbent upper house lawmakers would be decided after the election, now expected to be held Oct. 22.
Maehara met with senior Democratic officials Wednesday to discuss the idea, which will be officially proposed Thursday at a general meeting of party lawmakers. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to dissolve the Diet's lower house that day for the election.
The proposal is the latest in the Democratic leader's efforts to engineer a realignment to reduce competition among opposition parties within districts and more effectively compete with Abe's LDP. Maehara discussed the merger with Koike on Tuesday night. An intergration with the smaller Liberal Party led by Ichiro Ozawa is also under consideration.
"From here on out, we will make history," Maehara declared at a meeting Wednesday in Sendai. "We'll end the Abe government with this election."
But some in the Democratic Party, mainly in the parliament's upper house, are not keen on working with Koike and Ozawa. Party lawmakers held an emergency meeting Wednesday night to exchange views on the merger proposal, but the discussion proved inconclusive.
Koike made clear in an appearance Wednesday on public broadcaster NHK that she will be no ally of the Abe government, asserting that voters "must choose" between the two sides. "We'll clarify our differences and come out with various new policies," she said.
"Insofar as this is a general election, the goal must be to take the reins of government," the governor added.
In a separate TV appearance that day, Koike noted that Kibo no To's list of potential candidates runs into the triple digits. The party unveiled its platform at a news conference here Wednesday attended by 11 sitting lower-house lawmakers and three from the upper house.
A tougher fight
A merger between Japan's largest opposition party and Koike's new outfit could frustrate the ruling coalition's hopes of cruising to victory. Senior officials from the LDP and coalition partner Komeito met here Wednesday to discuss Kibo no To's entry into the fray.
If multiple opposition candidates run in one single-seat constituency, the anti-Abe vote splits, potentially giving the ruling coalition candidate an easy win. But head-to-head matchups with candidates from a new party led by someone with Koike's level of name recognition would be a different story. Such a political force could attract not only voters critical of the government, but also independents with high hopes for the new party.
Fumio Kishida, chairman of the LDP's Policy Research Council, intently followed Koike's news conference on TV at the party's headquarters. If Kibo no To and the Democratic Party merge, he told reporters, "I'll be watching with interest to see what sort of party emerges and what policies it comes out with."
Koike's involvement has the ruling coalition particularly worried about its prospects in the Tokyo, the governor's home turf. "It's a difficult situation, no doubt about it," said Ichiro Kamoshita, who once led the LDP's branch there.
Abe's deputies are nervously watching the maneuvering by the opposition. "Consensus on policy is extremely important," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga warned at a news conference Wednesday. "Many of our citizens are watching to see what specific policies -- not mere slogans -- [Kibo no To] will implement."
Another senior government official dismissed the realignment as a marriage of convenience engineered by those desperate to win in the election.
Abe told reporters Monday that his objective for the election is, as always, a simple majority for the LDP-Komeito coalition government -- now 233 seats in the 465-seat lower house. With support for the Democrats in the doldrums, it was widely assumed that this would not be a difficult target to meet. Some in the LDP had even argued that setting the bar so low made Abe sound weak.
But some now argue that the prospect of a Democratic Party-Kibo no To merger means that the ruling party can no longer be so confident. Though former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi asserted Wednesday that the LDP is "without a doubt the No. 1 party," he acknowledged that the coalition's keeping its majority is no certainty.