The poverty of Japanese politics

Author: Michael Cucek, Shisaku, Tokyo

The morning talk show lineup on Sunday 22 July provided a stark demonstration of the depleted state of Japanese politics.

The preceding week was a heady one for domestic politics: four more members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) defected, which prompted two new parliamentary caucuses in the Diet and even more in the local assemblies. In that same week Ambassador to China Uichiro Niwa was publically humiliated over his declaration that a purchase of three of the Senkaku Islands by the Tokyo metropolitan government would likely lead to increased frictions between Japan and China. It was also a less-than-auspicious week for the seemingly unstoppable Osaka city mayor, Toru Hashimoto, who had his first serious hiccup in a long time.

Despite such an eventful week, the national broadcaster’s flagship political debate program hosted a short debate between Koriki Jojima and Fumio Kishida, the Diet Affairs chairmen of the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). This is nearly unprecedented. Nichiyo Toron almost always has at least the policy chiefs of all the major and mini parties of the Diet on display, if not the party secretary-generals.

The abbreviated face-off covered a very limited range of issues including the progress of the social welfare and pension bills reform (ittai kaikaku hoan), in particular the bill raising consumption tax to 10 per cent and the schedule for House of Representative elections. Jojima and Kishida also discussed the likelihood of the LDP cooperating with the DPJ in passing the bond issuance bill necessary to implement the DPJ-drafted budget before money runs out in October. The debate also featured either man offering his party’s position on the competing DPJ and LDP electoral district reform.

These subjects are all closely linked together: solving one leads to and depends upon the solving of the others. The DPJ and the LDP must work them out between themselves, as neither party by itself or combined with the other parties in the Diet has the numbers to pass the necessary legislation.

The greatest hurdle is the reform of the House of Representatives. At present, the population of 97 districts more than doubles the population of the smallest district, meaning that more than half the votes in those 97 districts are thrown away. The Supreme Court has declared that any disparity greater than 1.99 to 1 is unconstitutional because it violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees citizens equality under the law.

The LDP bill, known as the +0/-5 solution, responds to the Supreme Court’s challenge by abolishing the five smallest districts. The disparity of between the 97 largest districts and the smallest district would then fall below the 1.99 limit. This proposal preserves the inequalities that perpetuated LDP rule for 50 years. It denigrates the urban and suburban revenue-producing districts, at the same that it elevates the largely rural districts, with their government contract- and regulation-protected economies.

The competing DPJ bill is also based on the +0/-5 solution, which is contrary to the interests of the DPJ’s natural constituency — the abused urban and suburban electorate. The proposal includes a pair of amendments that both entice and repel the New Komeito, the LDP’s alliance partner.

The DPJ bill is thus not a bill but a red herring that allows the LDP and the New Komeito to stay engaged under the illusion that a weakened DPJ is ready to cut a deal on redistricting. In return the LDP and the New Komeito, out of their present eagerness to hold an election, are expected to offer concessions on pending bills.

And yet the reality cannot be disguised: the DPJ and the LDP can no longer play ruling party versus opposition. Now that 16 members of the House of Councillors have defected, the DPJ can no longer team up with the New Komeito to pass bills through both houses of the Diet. After the recent defections, only an agreement between the DPJ and the LDP can guarantee that a bill will be passed.

Barring the intrusion of a national political party led by Toru Hashimoto — who has become far less of a threat to the status quo now that his popularity seems to be dropping — there is no plausible set of election results that could alter the need for the DPJ and the LDP to cooperate. An election, if held today, would not solve anything.

Also, the LDP membership does not really want to have an election — not now. Party president Sadakazu Tanigaki has proven a disappointment because he has been unable to improve his party’s standing with the electorate despite the DPJ’s many stumbles. Tanigaki advocates implacable confrontation with the DPJ and is eager to force an election before his term runs out in September. His rivals from within the LDP echo his inflexibility with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Such is the poverty of Japanese politics that the direction of the country depends on the passage of a handful of bills. The conviction that party identity is honed through conflict with the other side — a legacy of the LDP’s long reign in power — is holding the two major parties from sorely needed and ultimately unavoidable collaboration.

Michael Cucek is a Research Associate at the MIT Center for International Studies and the author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society.

A version of this article was first published here on the Shisaku blog.

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  • Anand Rao

    Good commentary, Mr. Cucek. Keep up the good work on your blog. I am glad to see that you frequently upload new comments there.