Japan’s Endangered Opposition: Ruling Coalition Scores Upper House Election Landslide
August 21, 2013
In the wake of July’s electoral blowout, the party that monopolized Japanese government from 1955 to 2009 is firmly back in the saddle. And the opposition may be too fractured and demoralized now to play any meaningful role in the legislative process. Katsuyuki Yakushiji comments on the upper house election and the opposition’s self-destruction.
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Japanese voters handed an overwhelming victory to the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan’s July 21 House of Councillors election. The landslide has given Prime Minister Shintaro Abe’s ruling party control over both houses of the Diet (the LDP–New Komeito coalition already held a majority of seats in the House of Representatives), ending six years of legislative gridlock in the Diet. Having thus laid the foundation for a stable government, Abe can now turn his full attention to reviving Japan’s economy and dealing with its 1,000 trillion yen public debt.
A Lopsided Victory
For the opposition camp, the July election was a catastrophe; the media has reveled in the sordid spectacle of finger pointing and infighting among the battered parties, and the situation hardly bodes well for the future of Japanese democracy. Without a responsible opposition rigorously checking and, where necessary, demanding changes in government policy, Japan could fall victim to the evils of one-party rule. As things stand now, however, the opposition seems too torn by internal bickering to engage the ruling party seriously.
Half of the 242 upper house seats were up for election on July 21. Of those 121 seats, 65 went to the LDP and 11 to its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito, for a solid coalition total of 76. Most important, the ruling bloc now controls 135 seats in the upper house, a stable majority.
In contrast, the Democratic Party of Japan, which held the reins of government from September 2009 to December 2012, won just 17 of the 121 seats up for grabs. As a consequence, its upper house strength plummeted from 86 seats before the election—the largest bloc in the chamber—to 59, or about half the number controlled by the LDP. The Japan Restoration Party, Your Party, and the Japanese Communist Party each won 8 seats, and the Social Democratic Party secured just 1. Neither the People’s Life Party (headed by former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa), the Green Wind Party, nor any of the other new parties organized by sitting Diet members in the past year or so came away with a single upper house seat.
The upshot is that the balance of power in the Diet has suddenly become lopsided, with the huge LDP and its sidekick, the Komeito, on one side and a highly fragmented and fragile opposition on the other.
The Opposition’s Disarray
In the wake of their disastrous performance, the opposition parties need to demonstrate their worth to voters through constructive involvement in Diet affairs while revamping their organizations and reviewing their policies in preparation for the next national election. But instead of addressing these challenges, they have indulged in the blame game and descended into internecine warfare, alienating voters even further.
Epitomizing this implosion is the DPJ, the party in power until last December’s general election. After the upper house election, DPJ President Banri Kaieda and Secretary General Goshi Hosono, who was in charge of election strategy, came under mounting pressure to resign to take responsibility for the party’s crushing defeat. Kaieda remained the party leader, though, while Hosono resigned as secretary general, being replaced by Akihiro Ohata, a close ally of Kaieda. Although Kaieda’s continued control of the DPJ rankles with many in the party, no one is volunteering to take his place at the helm of this foundering ship.
Nor is that the worst of it. Shortly after the election, Kaieda—apparently stunned by the magnitude of his party’s defeat—demanded drastic disciplinary action against two of the party’s patriarchs, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, complaining that their recent actions had damaged the party. Kaieda initially called for the expulsion of Kan, who had openly backed a candidate that the party decided—at the last minute—not to endorse. He also sought to have the name of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (who had already resigned) expunged from the party’s rolls over the latter’s controversial statements regarding the Senkaku Islands. In the end, the party issued a letter of protest against Hatoyama and suspended Kan for three weeks. Still, the fact that that the DPJ would even consider such radical measures against two of its most prominent members—both former prime ministers and pivotal figures in the party’s formation—testifies to its internal disintegration.
Adding to the aura of doom surrounding the party was the eerie silence from such DPJ stalwarts as former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who presided over the DPJ’s last administration, former Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada, former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, and former Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Yukio Edano. Their refusal to speak up or take action as the chaos deepened intensified the impression of the DPJ as an organization bereft of the energy or will to move forward.
A similar pattern of dysfunction has emerged among the newer opposition parties. The Japan Restoration Party had picked up more than 50 seats in its first general election last December thanks to the popularity of its charismatic co-leader, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. But support for the party plummeted after Hashimoto’s embarrassing remarks concerning the Imperial Army’s use of “comfort women” and the US military in Okinawa. Since the JRP’s dismal showing in the July election, a serious schism has emerged within the party, as Diet members loyal to Hashimoto (mainly from the Osaka area) clash with followers of the other co-leader, former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. Hashimoto, who had expressed a willingness to resign his party post and devote himself to Osaka affairs full time, ended up staying on in an effort to hold the JRP together, but tensions remain high, and many believe the party could fracture at any time.
Your Party, a small LDP splinter group, picked up a few additional seats in the upper house, but its performance fell short of expectations after steady gains in the three previous national elections. Here, too, disappointment has led to disunity, and a serious disagreement erupted between President Yoshimi Watanabe and Secretary General Kenji Eda.
Social Democratic Party President Mizuho Fukushima bowed out in the wake of the SDP’s disastrous loss, but a change in leadership here signifies little, given the SDP’s continuous downward trajectory over the past seven years.
The fragile unity of Japan’s opposition parties should not come as a great surprise, given the shallowness of their roots. Of all the nation’s political parties, the only one with a history extending back before World War II is the Japanese Communist Party. The next oldest is the LDP, formed in 1955, followed by the Komeito, founded in 1964. The DPJ was established less than 20 years ago, in 1996, the same year that the Social Democratic Party was formed by former members of the Japan Socialist Party (formed in 1955). The remaining opposition parties date from the last decade or so, and most were established by disaffected members of larger parties.
None of these newer parties really represents a coherent set of policies or a distinct political base. Almost all are the result of strategic alliances by politicians seeking to capitalize on the popularity of a party leader or a hot-button policy issue (such as taxes or nuclear power) in order to gain votes or secure a position of power. When politicians view the party as a vehicle to further their own political ambitions, rather than a means of achieving certain policy goals, we can hardly expect them to display solidarity and loyalty in the face of defeat.
Such parties have proliferated in recent years as a result of the proportional representation system. Tiny upstart parties have virtually no chance of electoral success when voters are forced to choose among candidates for electoral districts with one, two, or even three seats. But under the electoral system adopted in the mid 1990s, a portion of the seats in both houses are allocated to large multiseat constituencies (one nationwide constituency in the upper house, 11 regional blocs in the lower house), in which voters cast their ballots for the party of their choice, and the seats are divided among the parties in accordance with the ratio of the vote their receive.
Theoretically, this system affords a fighting chance for candidates from even the smallest party, providing it has a sufficiently recognizable name or popular leader. This has encouraged politicians to form or join one new party after another in a bid to change their political fortunes. The trend peaked late last year, when lower house politicians rushed to ally themselves with high-profile leaders or popular causes before the December general election in hopes of saving their own political fortunes. A dozen parties vied in that race.
Ironically, the trend has proved self-defeating. The proliferation of parties has split the vote in the small and medium-sized electoral districts, until only a huge organization like the LDP has a decent chance of winning a seat. Of the parties formed in the past 20 years, only the DPJ managed to grow into a significant force, and it did so by securing the support of Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), Japan’s largest labor organization. But after three years of broken government, no amount of organizational support could save the DPJ from the voters’ wrath.
In the recent House of Councillors election, Japanese voters passed a harsh verdict not only against the DPJ but also against the political irresponsibility embodied in “parties of the month” and politicians who change their allegiance at the drop of a hat. At the same time, they expressed their desire for stable government by casting their ballots for the LDP. In doing so, they ensured the dominance of one strong party over a host of weak ones.
Under these conditions, the opposition forces will continue to lose popular support. Indeed, in an opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun about a week after the upper house election, support for the LDP stood at 35%, as compared with 5% for the DPJ, 7% for the JRP, 5% for Komeito, and 4% for Your Party. In the absence of any viable strategy for expanding their bases, the opposition parties have turned their attention, all too predictably, to another round of spin-offs and mergers. By the time the next national election rolls around (in about three years, barring extraordinary circumstances) the entire opposition lineup is likely to have changed—except, perhaps, for that lone bastion of constancy and organizational strength, the Japanese Communist Party.