Japan's Communists Flirt With Mainstream in Bid to Unseat Abe

  • Opposition parties seek to unite anti-Abe vote in summer poll
  • Communists compromise in effort to roll back security bills

People hold up placards as they take part in a protest against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's security bills outside the National Diet building in Tokyo in August 2015.

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

The Japanese Communist Party is making a rare bid to forge a united front with the mainstream opposition to topple Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and repeal his signature legislation expanding the role of the country’s military.

Banned from its formation in 1922 until the end of World War II, the strictly pacifist JCP has long advocated ditching the country’s alliance with the U.S. and disbanding Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. It will put those goals on hold as it seeks a joint platform with other opposition groups to contest upper house elections expected in July, Yoshiki Yamashita, the head of the party’s secretariat, said in an interview this week at party headquarters.

The passage of laws last year expanding the role of the military, based on Abe’s reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution, sparked huge street demonstrations. Despite the public outrage, Abe’s support levels were relatively unscathed. He remains on course to become the longest-serving prime minister since the 1970s, while the fragmented opposition struggles to offer a credible alternative. That situation has roused the Communists to take their unprecedented action.

"Whatever the government, however big a majority the ruling parties may have, the responsibility conferred on them by the people is to govern within the constitution," Yamashita said. "If breaking that framework is allowed, we will have a dictatorship."

Five Leaders

Five opposition leaders managed to overcome ideological differences to seal an agreement last month that aims to reverse the security legislation, which they view as a violation of the U.S.-drafted constitution. They also pledged to cooperate in other areas. As part of a plan to avoid splitting their vote, they will field only one candidate between them in five of the 32 single-seat districts up for grabs in the upper house. Yamashita said they will seek to expand that arrangement.

Shinzo Abe.

hotographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Leaders of the five groups, which will become four after the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan merges with the smaller Innovation Party this month, are in talks on a unified policy platform that may oppose passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and the restart of Japan’s nuclear power plants, Yamashita said.

Abe’s poll numbers have begun to flag in recent months on growing signs that his key economic policies, known as Abenomics, have failed to end deflation and revive growth. Asia’s second-largest economy shrank an annualized 1.1 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, marking the second quarterly contraction of 2015.

QuickTake Abenomics

Even with discontent with Abe on the rise, questions remain as to whether more voters will support an alliance whose members are drawn from such a wide swathe of the political spectrum. Conservatives in the Democratic Party oppose the idea of cooperating with the Communists, who have never served in government and remain subject to monitoring by the Public Security Intelligence Agency.

Only 5 percent of respondents to a Mainichi newspaper poll carried out earlier this month said they supported the Communists, with 6 percent for the Democrats and 1 percent for the Innovation Party. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party garnered 31 percent, while the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito was at 4 percent.

Numbers Up

While outright victory in the upper house vote remains unlikely, a united opposition may eat into the ruling parties’ majority, potentially weakening Abe’s legislative hand. The Communist vote has increased since the virtual collapse of the Democrats after they lost power in 2012. In the proportional representation section of the last general election in 2014, the Communist Party won more than 11 percent of the vote, almost double the six percent it achieved in 2012.

"The DPJ isn’t sufficiently popular to win by itself," said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo who also campaigns against the reinterpretation of the constitution. "What they can do is to try to get some more seats by getting the votes of the Communists." he said. "This is the only viable course of action."

With threats to Japanese security increasing due to China’s economic and military rise and North Korea’s missile program, Abe braved public opposition to challenge the pacifist constraints of the constitution and allow the country’s Self-Defense Forces to aid an ally under attack. While opponents say rolling back the new defense laws would help keep Japan out of any U.S.-led wars, Abe said such a move would cause great damage to Japan’s alliance with the U.S., which he said helps protect the Japanese people.

"We cannot lose to a party that will just do anything and team up with anybody for the sake of an election," Abe said at his party convention last weekend. "The fight this year will be between the LDP-Komeito coalition and the Democratic-Communist group."

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