Election reveals the sorry state of Japan’s political opposition

Author: Purnendra Jain, University of Adelaide

Last Sunday’s general election in Japan has returned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its ally, the New Komeito, with a two-thirds majority in the lower house of the Diet. That the LDP would get a majority of seats was expected, as various polls had shown since Abe unexpectedly announced snap elections in November. Now the LDP holds 291 seats and New Komeito 35 in the 475-seat lower house.

But while this landslide victory gives Abe and his team a free hand in pushing their agenda, it does not augur well for the health of a democratic state that must be based on a competitive party system.

Japan was for long characterised as having a ‘dominant party system’ with the LDP in power and other parties in perennial opposition. Although opposition parties never seriously threatened the LDP’s dominant position, they made significant impacts on policy outcomes. This landscape changed in 1993 when the LDP suffered an electoral defeat for the first time since it was formed in 1955. However, the LDP quickly returned to power within a year and maintained its dominance for another 15 years until 2009.

In the 2009 general election the LDP suffered a crushing defeat to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). It was expected that the DPJ would bring a new political culture in which its leaders will lead in policy matters and the long-held influence of bureaucrats on policymaking would diminish. The DPJ also promised a new political culture through its catchy slogan ‘from concrete to people’, symbolising the end of public works-driven special interest politics and a shift towards people-oriented policies.

But very little changed. The enthusiasm for the DPJ soon began to dissipate due to the party’s internal division and lack of policy cohesiveness, resulting in its prime ministers resigning one after another. As a result of its poor policy performance and party disunity, the DPJ was decimated in the 2012 general election. It went from 230 to 57 seats while the LDP won a landslide victory.

Even though the DPJ lost badly in 2012, there emerged a new element in opposition politics in Japan: the so-called ‘third force’. In particular, the Japan Restoration Party (JRP) led jointly by Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto and former governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara emerged as a major third force. The Japan Future Party (Nippon Mirai no To) was another, established by then Shiga Prefecture governor Yukiko Kada. Her party’s main aim was to phase out nuclear power plants within 10 years and make Japan a nuclear-free country. Furthermore, the former LDP and DPJ heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa merged his People’s Life First Party (Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi) with the Japan Future Party, and embraced the no-nuclear agenda. Nagoya mayor Takashi Kawamura and high-profile politician Shizuka Kamei, as well as three lower house members of the new Green Wind (Midori no Kaze) also joined Kada’s party.

Because of their highly personal and conservative styles of politics and their differences on policy issues ranging from nuclear power plants to constitutional amendments, Hashimoto and Ishihara parted company early in 2014. A new party called the Japan Innovation Party (JIP) was formed led by Hashimoto with 42 members in the lower house, while Ishihara formed another party: the Party for Future Generations (PFG) with 19 members in the lower house. Ozawa formed yet another party — the People’s Life Party — after he split from the Future Party.

But this third force has lost its momentum through internal division and lack of coherent policy. Almost all of these third force parties have suffered huge electoral setbacks. The PFG, which held 19 seats in the lower house prior to the election, won only two seats. Ozawa’s People’s Life Party also won only two seats including his own in northern Japan.

Among the opposition parties, the Japan Communist Party is a real winner with 21 seats, up from eight seats prior to the election. But the influence of the Communist Party on policy processes is weak and the party does not favour forming a coalition with other opposition parties, since its ideological stance does not match with any of the opposition parties.

It is clear that the LDP will remain in a commanding position for the next four years and Abe is likely to continue as prime minister until 2016, barring unforeseen circumstances.

Opposition and third force political parties need to think long and hard about their policy and electoral strategies if they are to mount a decent opposition to the ruling party. And upcoming contests give Japanese democracy another chance at pluralism: there will be a unified local election in April 2015 and an upper house election in mid-2016. Abe and his party will have one eye on these elections while pursuing their agenda, as heavy losses in any of these elections might put pressure on Abe to resign.

Purnendra Jain is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide.