Japan opposition reunites as ruling party picks new leader

TOKYO (AP) — Members of a Japanese opposition party that split after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took power eight years ago are reuniting as speculation grows of an early general election following Abe’s decision to step down for health reasons.

They are preparing a united front as the governing Liberal Democratic Party plans a vote on Sept. 14 to choose Abe’s replacement as party chief. The LDP’s leader is virtually assured of becoming the next prime minister because of its parliamentary majority.

The merged group chose Yukio Edano, a former chief Cabinet secretary, as its leader on Thursday and adopted the name Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the name of the party he previously led.

The new party combines Edano’s group with the Democratic Party for the People, as well as some formerly independent lawmakers. It has 149 members, compared to about 400 for the LDP, and would need an alliance with numerous other opposition lawmakers to take power.

“We will do our utmost to become an option for leadership change in the next general election,” Edano said at a news conference.

The new party said it aims to improve an economy hit by the coronavirus, end the country’s dependence on nuclear power, and promote a diverse and gender-equal society with government support for the weak and needy.

It will be formally launched on Sept. 15, just ahead of a vote in parliament to pick the new prime minister. The winner will serve the remainder of Abe’s term until September 2021.

Abe’s longtime right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, is widely expected to win the Sept. 14 vote for party leader and then the prime ministership.

Support for the LDP is bouncing back, apparently because of voter sympathy over Abe’s resignation despite his unpopular coronavirus policies and a series of political scandals, and speculation is growing that Suga will call an October general election.

A strong showing by the ruling party could increase Suga’s chances of going for a full three-year term rather than serving as a one-year caretaker.

Abe is Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and led his party to six national election victories in the absence of a viable opposition.

The opposition party that split, the centrist Democratic Party of Japan, was formed in 1996 by former Liberal Democrats and Socialists and went through repeated divorces and regrouping because of infighting.

It led the government starting in 2009, but lost power three years later over its handling of widely unpopular U.S. military base relocation plan on Okinawa and its handling of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

It will take time for a new party to shake off the negative image of the short-lived DPJ and regain voter trust as a viable option to the LDP, said Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at the consultancy Teneo.

“The opposition party does have to find a way to move beyond memories of the DPJ years,” he said. “The people will be willing to give them a chance again, but it’s going to take time.”

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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