The Democratic Party of Japan looks set to field only about 200 candidates in next month's House of Representatives election, considerably less than half of the 475 seats up for grabs and a reflection of the party's dismal showing since it was ousted from power in late 2012.
Unless there is a reorganisation of opposition parties after next month's election, it now appears increasingly unlikely that a "two major party system" involving the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party will emerge.
The DPJ has fielded candidates for at least half the seats available in all five lower house elections held since the party was formed in 1998. However, a Yomiuri Shimbun tally found that as of Thursday, the DPJ had decided on 177 candidates it would officially endorse in contests for the 295 single-seat constituencies.
The party plans to announce its candidates in the proportional representation blocks on Monday, but a senior DPJ official told the Yomiuri that the overall number would not increase by much.
"We've added a few more in the single-seat constituencies, but only a handful. In the proportional representation race, there will even be some regional blocks where we don't field any candidates," the official said. "I think we'll have no more than 200 overall."
The decline in DPJ candidates stems partly from its agreement with the Japan Innovation Party and other opposition parties to work together to support the same candidate in some constituencies, to increase the chances of defeating candidates put forward by the dominant LDP.
In a concession to the Japan Innovation Party, the DPJ has opted not to run its own candidates in about 10 single-seat constituencies.
Some DPJ members have expressed dissatisfaction with party leader Banri Kaieda's handling of the situation.
"He's spent so much time trying to rebuild the party that our election strategies have been neglected," a senior DPJ member said.
In the lower house elections held since the introduction in 1996 of a two-tier electoral system involving single-seat constituencies and proportional representation blocks, the fewest number of candidates from registered parties was 1,131 in the 2005 contest. That election was considered a referendum on the privatization of Japan's postal services.
Due to the drop in DPJ candidates, the total number of people standing for election next month had only reached 1,091 as of Thursday. According to a Yomiuri count, 941 candidates are likely to run in single-seat constituencies, with 150 running only in the proportional representation districts.
This is about one-third fewer than the 1,504 candidates who entered the 2012 election.
The total number for this year's election - which will be held Dec. 14 - is expected to be a little over 1,100.
With few candidates from the opposition parties acting as a magnet for ballots from voters who are "anti-LDP," there is growing concern within the ruling and opposition camps that voter turnout will drop. The lowest turnout on record for a lower house poll is the 59.32 per cent logged for single-seat constituencies in the 2012 election.