Party time in Japan’s general election

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW, Canberra

Japan’s party scene in the lead-up to the lower house election is kaleidoscopic — a constantly changing pattern of parties forming, dissolving and merging.

A dozen or so parties are contesting seats — not on a par with the 363 political parties that competed in the Diet elections of April 1946, but still a large number. The result is a bewildering smorgasbord for voters, who, spoilt for choice, risk being confused about which party to vote for.

There have been two waves of party development: party proliferation followed by party consolidation. A growing number of the new mini-parties have aspired to be a ‘third pole’ to challenge the two major parties, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but their proliferation was too high and too fast, prompting a change of tactics.

Party proliferation led to a multiplication of policy options around the main policy pivots: nuclear power generation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the consumption-tax rise. This made it much more difficult for voters to choose, so parties had to make their policies more detailed in order to differentiate themselves. Only nuanced differences separated most parties on the nuclear power issue, for example. Moreover, the main axes of policy differentiation were not necessarily the ones that interested voters the most.

Fear of the anti-major party vote being split too many ways then drove the wave of merger mania among the new mini-parties. Unless they came to some agreement on backing joint candidates in the single-member districts, their chances of winning a plurality (usually at least 50 per cent of the total vote) were very low. Where they might do better — in the regional blocks elected on a proportional representation basis, which are kinder to smaller parties — they would still have been battling to reach the threshold (usually 300,000 votes). Third-pole parties needed to combine into some kind of ‘third force’ to have any real impact on the post-election administration.

Combining proved difficult, however, because policy standpoints ranged across the left–right spectrum. The third pole thus coalesced into two poles: one on the right with the Japan Restoration Party (JRP) as the key grouping and the other on the centre-left, with Ozawa’s People’s Life First (PLF) as the key grouping. Prime Minister Noda referred to them as the ‘third’ and ‘fourth’ poles, while political commentator Shusei Tanaka called them third pole ‘A’ and third pole ‘B’.

Osaka City mayor Toru Hashimoto’s JRP and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s Sunrise Party were the first to act. They ignored their policy differences and merged almost immediately after Prime Minister Noda mounted his ‘surprise attack’ by calling a general election for 16 December (one of his objectives was to rob the third pole of time to prepare for the election). The wisdom of this amalgamation is yet to be tested in the electorate because their policy positions (such as on nuclear power and the TPP) have become less clear. Moreover, the JRP will compete with the LDP for the centre-right vote in many constituencies.

Ozawa decisively merged the centre-left parties to form third pole B. He dissolved the PLF and merged it with the new Tomorrow Party of Japan (TPJ), which the new Nuclear-Free Party and some in the new Green Wind parties also agreed to join. They all share a desire to end reliance on nuclear power, to freeze participation in the TPP and to suspend the consumption-tax hike. It is a sizeable party, with more than 60 members presently in the current lower house and at least 12 in the upper house.

Although the TPJ is led by the current governor of Shiga Prefecture, Yukiko Kada, who calls it a ‘true’ third pole, it is really the Ozawa party in a new guise. The timing of the merger raises the question as to whether Ozawa was behind the TPJ as a new ‘front’ party of his own creation. As more of the story has been revealed, it seems that Ozawa may have indeed planned the TPJ’s inauguration and persuaded Kada to lead it. He rightly saw the new party as having potentially greater electoral appeal than his own PLF, which was too patently an Ozawa party. In making Kada leader, Ozawa can retreat to his preferred position of ‘leading from behind’, rather than being the face of the party.

Ozawa has also changed the main message — from opposing the consumption-tax hike to ‘graduating from nuclear power’ (sotsu genpatsu), which has far greater issue salience among voters, particularly following the latest earthquake and tsunami. The TPJ also has a strong social-welfare orientation, which is designed to attract the votes of women and old people. Ozawa rightly predicts that issue salience will be as important as party identification or candidate preference in motivating voter choice in this election.

It is possible that the arrival of the TPJ representing the ‘new’ centre-left will depose the ‘old’ left — the Social Democratic Party (SDP). One of the SDP’s Diet members has already made the switch, as may many female voters in the election. TPJ and SDP policies and standpoints are almost identical but the SDP appears to be tired, dated and no longer leading the main opposition to the dominant major parties.

So far, the more established minor parties that originated as breakaway groups from the LDP — the People’s New Party, New Renaissance Party, New Party Daichi and Your Party — have held out against merging with the new third-pole parties. The risk is that they will be sidelined in an emerging contest between the third-pole and major parties.

The election may produce a new Diet that is as much a smorgasbord of political parties as the electoral menu is for voters. Polls suggest that the most likely result is either a major party or major-party ‘plus’ administration. Japan may revert to the norm with an LDP–Komeito coalition regaining the ascendancy, but a simple lower house majority (short of a two-thirds majority override) will not solve the ‘twisted Diet’ problem. This would be an incentive for the LDP to bring other allies on board or at least engineer coalitions of convenience on major items of legislation, as the DPJ did. Key to the election will be which parties pick up the large anti-DPJ protest vote and which way the non-party-affiliated voters (around 40–50 per cent of the electorate) jump. The difficulty for all parties is in projecting a distinct policy profile in the maelstrom of multi-party competition.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.