March 15, 2016 / 4:53 AM / in 2 years

Japan opposition new name seen as risk ahead of election

TOKYO (Reuters) - A new name unveiled by Japan’s main opposition party and a smaller group with which it is set to merge has come under fire, as analysts warn the rebranding could do more harm than good just months away from a national election.

Leaders of the two parties announced the new name, Minshinto - provisionally translated as Democratic Innovation Party (DIP) - on Monday based on surveys asking voters to choose between two options.

The bigger Democratic Party of Japan will thus abandon a label under which it has battled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party for two decades, but which for many voters is associated with a 2009-2012 DPJ reign marked by policy flipflops and missteps.

Many in the DPJ were chilly toward the new name, written with the same characters as the abbreviation of Taiwan’s incoming ruling party the Democratic Progressive Party, but the smaller Japan Innovation Party had insisted on a change as a condition for merging because of the perceived voter allergy to the old label.

Experts said relabelling could be a strategic mistake, especially since voters will have little time to grow accustomed to the new name by a July upper house election.

“The political science evidence is clear - changing the name is a bad idea,” said Chuo University political science professor Steven Reed. “It’s a bad idea for winning elections.”

Opposition parties lag the LDP badly in opinion polls, with one February media survey putting support for the ruling party at 38.1 percent against 9.3 percent for the Democrats.

Still, opposition parties’ efforts to cooperate on candidates in the coming election could bear fruit since surveys also suggest voters could switch sides if they saw a viable alternative to Abe’s LDP.

Abe’s government is pushing several unpopular policies including revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, and doubts also run deep about his efforts to revive the economy.

Civic groups unhappy with Abe’s policies are prepared to mobilize behind anti-LDP candidates if opposition parties unite, Reed said.

“If people are given only two choices and turnout goes up, the LDP (and its junior partner) could be in trouble. They are not going to lose their majority but ... they are not going to get a two-thirds majority and revise the constitution,” he said.

Revising the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament plus a simple majority in a public referendum, a hurdle never yet cleared.

(Story refiles to remove extraneous “the”, insert “do” in paragraph 1.)

Editing by Ed Davies

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