Copyright THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
August 22, 2005
TOKYO — For the first time in recent history, Japan’s political opposition is playing a major role in shaping government.
For most of the past 60 years, Japanese politics was dominated by a single group — the Liberal Democratic Party. Its opponents — ranging from Communists to parties backed by religious groups — were a weak and motley crew whose main role was to yelp when the LDP did anything they saw as too drastic.
Over the past decade, however, some of those opposition groups have unified and gained legitimacy, posing a serious threat to the LDP in coming September elections for Japan’s Lower House of Parliament. And though the latest polls suggest the Democratic Party of Japan — the main opposition group — won’t gain an outright majority, analysts say it could get close, meaning it stands to increase its numbers significantly. If that happens, Japan will edge closer than it ever has to a true two-party system.
“We’ve been working bit by bit toward this day for years, and now, finally, we’ll have a change in government,” DPJ leader Katsuya Okada, 52 years old, said earlier this month.
The implications reach beyond the coming vote. A stronger, healthier opposition — and an eventual seizure of power by the DPJ — could change Japan’s approach to everything from the economy to the war in Iraq. In a recent manifesto, the DPJ says it wants to slash government spending, withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq by December and bolster Japan’s national pension fund by raising the consumption tax. Meanwhile, the DPJ’s growing sway with voters — particularly in metropolitan areas — is making the LDP revise its own platform and campaign strategies to attract a wider range of supporters.
On Friday, Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, gave details of the LDP’s official platform for the coming elections, citing the continued pursuit of postal privatization as the top priority.
In the decades following its founding in 1955, the LDP held well over 50% of the seats in Japan’s Lower House, which is the more powerful side of Parliament. It has fallen out of power only once — for just under a year starting in 1993. The LDP maintained its dominance through a system of pork-barrel politics benefiting numerous special-interest groups — from construction companies to beauticians — which in turn cast votes for the LDP on election day. The party has also had exclusive access to Japan’s powerful bureaucrats.
LDP rule worked during heady economic times when there was plenty of money to fund the politicians’ pork. But when the bursting of a land-price and stock bubble in the early 1990s sent the economy into a tailspin, politicians ran short on funds to distribute, while voters became increasingly unhappy with the old system. In 1993, a coalition of eight opposition parties was able to grab power. Although the coalition collapsed after a few months and the LDP returned, its dominance has been waning, and in recent years it has stayed in power only by cobbling together its own coalitions.
Japan’s opposition camp, meanwhile, has continued to coalesce. One spur was a 1996 change in Japan’s election system and campaign-finance laws that effectively rewarded cooperation among the opposition parties. The DPJ was founded the same year.
The DPJ is also benefiting from a shift in the way Japanese citizens vote, analysts say. With the LDP’s influence over special-interest groups waning, voters have become harder for the ruling party to mobilize. Floating voters increasingly decide the outcome of Japanese elections, and the DPJ has just as good a chance of snagging them as the ruling party does.
The turmoil surrounding September’s election is giving the DPJ its biggest chance to gain power yet. Earlier this month, Mr. Koizumi dissolved the Lower House and called the elections after his pet project — a bill to privatize the post office — was defeated by conservative members of the LDP. Mr. Koizumi has expelled the LDP politicians who voted against the plan and is fielding new candidates to run against them.
Yet it won’t be easy for the DPJ. Political analysts say a big problem is the DPJ’s lackluster leader, Mr. Okada. The sleepy-eyed politician doesn’t have Mr. Koizumi’s fire. And his platform is a multi-issue goulash compared with Mr. Koizumi’s campaign, which is focused sharply on continuing to fight for postal overhaul. Yukio Edano, a DPJ strategist, says Mr. Okada wants to campaign on issues, not personality. “He’s not much fun as a friend, but he’d be a good prime minister,” Mr. Edano says.
The official platforms of both parties ahead of the September election are similar in many respects. In the LDP announcement on Friday, Mr. Koizumi echoed Mr. Okada’s promises to shrink government, saying he will open up government enterprises to the private sector and cut costs spent on civil-service personnel. Mr. Koizumi also reiterated the importance of Japan’s security alliance with the U.S.
Mr. Okada, however, emphasizes the importance of smoothing ties with China and South Korea — two countries with which Japan’s relationship has been strained.
Support for Mr. Koizumi and his party is running high. A recent survey of 1,914 people by Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper showed that 37% plan to support the LDP in the coming election versus 16% who plan to vote for the DPJ.
Still, many analysts say recent trends bode well for the DPJ in the long term. In July’s Tokyo assembly elections — considered a bellwether for the nation’s political mood — the DPJ upped its representation to 35 seats from 19, while the LDP failed to achieve its targeted 51-seat gain. “Japan is moving toward having a choice of governments,” says Steven Reed, a professor of political science at Japan’s Chuo University.