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Japanese opposition party’s battle plan falls short

  • January 25, 2017
  • , Nikkei Asian Review , 1:10 p.m.
  • English Press

By Yosuke Onchi, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — Renho, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, hoped to make a splash with education and work style proposals Tuesday, but her performance on the parliamentary floor lacked punch, perhaps reflecting a party mood dampened by weak public support.


Renho won the job in September on a promise of turning the deeply unpopular leading opposition party into a party that offers alternatives. She has been keenly aware of criticisms that the Democrats offer no constructive counterproposals and is determined to address them. The party explicitly promised valid counterproposals to the ruling coalition’s proposals in a Diet strategy drafted before the current Diet session.


“We will offer our clear views and alternative proposals,” Renho said Tuesday in a meeting before the plenary session of the upper house.

“I ask you to change your inaccurate description that we spend all of our time criticizing others,” she told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the upper house floor.


A plan at last


One of these policy alternatives is to introduce a type of basic income in Japan, a concept she adopted days ago on recommendations from advisers. Existing income deductions would be scrapped in favor of tax deductions. Those whose total income taxes come in below the reduction would receive the shortfall in the form of lower social security premiums and other benefits.


The plan is founded on the principle that everybody should benefit and everyone should contribute — one advanced by Keio University professor Eisaku Ide and that formed the basis of former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara’s platform when he ran against Renho for party president. The Democrats seem to have finally come up with a substantial economic plan. Incorporating views from different corners of the party also contributes to party unity.


But shadows loom. “This idea should be considered in conjunction with pensions, welfare and other social security measures,” Hosei University professor Takao Komine said. And the party has provided no clear plan for lifting Japan out of deflation, spurring economic growth, or other central themes of Abenomics.


“We need careful deliberation,” Abe said at the Diet session, responding curtly to the idea of a basic income. Renho later told reporters that his response was arrogant, citing a saying that those who rest on their laurels will soon face a downfall.


Yet response within her own party was less than enthusiastic. “We can’t really call this a counterproposal,” an official said.


“She’s known for quick reactions, and thus seems to be relying on many stopgap measures,” a midlevel member said.


Tenuous leadership


Since becoming party chief, Renho has been aware that she could be blindsided by an unexpected snap election. The Democratic Party’s approval ratings have recently languished in the single digits, except for a brief boost when she took office, Nikkei Inc. polls show. The figure came to 7% in December. “Our goal this year is to beat the consumption tax rate” of 8%, a member said self-deprecatingly.


A shocking November survey by the party showed that it would likely not gain any more seats in a potential election. Renho has secured only 10 new candidates who could run and has not been able to coordinate with the Japanese Communist Party and other opposition parties to avoid clashes in single-seat constituencies.


In 2014, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party dissolved the lower house before the opposition could find candidates in every voting district. “The ruling coalition will strike before we are fully prepared,” a Democratic official said. Policy debate has taken a back seat to election preparations.


Renho met with Democratic Party Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda and other close allies Jan. 12, reaffirming her plans to run in the next lower house race. This would be an important step if Renho, who now serves in the upper house, ever wants to be prime minister.


To stress that the Democratic Party values women, plans have emerged to put one at the top of the list of candidates for proportional-representation seats. But Renho still lacks a district to run in, and no party member has offered to give up a seat for her. Few Democrats seem ready to put their weight behind electing Renho prime minister, highlighting the fragility of her hold on power.

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