Credible Opposition to Japan’s Conservatives Beyond Hope


Japanese politics is roiling on the surface again, with old parties splintering and new parties emerging at a breathless pace ahead of the 2017 snap general election. But it is doubtful if all of this turmoil will make any substantial difference for the dominance of the conservatives.

Here we go again. Japanese politics is roiling on the surface again, with old parties splintering and new parties emerging at a breathless pace.

Soon after Prime Minister Abe Shinzō of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party called for a snap election to be held on October 22, Koike Yuriko, the governor of Tokyo, launched her Kibō no Tō, the Party of Hope. Only three months earlier, Koike had led her newly minted local party, Tomin (Tokyoites) First, to trounce the LDP in metropolitan assembly elections. Her gambit, not wholly unexpected, to leapfrog onto the national stage triggered a less-expected meltdown in Japan’s main opposition party.

A few days following Koike’s party launch, Maehara Seiji, leader of the Democratic Party, announced out of the blue a de facto dissolution of his party: DP House of Representatives candidates were to stand on the Party of Hope label, while Maehara himself was to stand as an independent. Not all of the DP candidates, however, were welcomed into, or chose to, join Koike’s ranks. The handful of left-leaning parliamentarians in the DP moved to another newborn party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan led by Edano Yukio.

The media went into overdrive, with speculation over who would be joining which parties and whether Koike herself would resign her governorship to stand in the national elections. In contrast, the previous 2014 snap election was a tepid affair. Voting turnout fell to a historical low of 52% while returning a two-thirds majority to the LDP and its coalition partner Kōmeitō for the second consecutive time.

The 2017 election has so far proven a far more interesting race. But it is doubtful whether all of this turmoil will make any substantial difference in how Japan is ruled.

Koike, whose party has nominated 235 candidates, has not ruled out cooperation with the LDP. She shares many of the ruling party’s positions on vital issues, including constitutional reform and collective security. Many have described her party as merely another faction of the LDP, with the folding of the main opposition into her vehicle as representing the ultimate triumph of the conservatives.

If the ruling coalition loses its current two-thirds majority, necessary for constitutional reform, it will likely have a choice of potential proreform partners, including the Party of Hope and another conservative third-pole party, the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin), to overcome the threshold. Meanwhile, the center-left CDPJ is offering somewhat clearer policy alternatives: opposition to Article 9 reform, an end to nuclear power, and an emphasis on liberal values and greater redistribution. Yet Edano’s party has only fielded 78 candidates for a Diet of 465 seats. Even if all CDPJ nominees were to win and join hands with other parties on the left, they would be far short of a parliamentary majority.

The nub of this contest, then, is that a credible alternative to replace the LDP and its conservative agenda is once again lacking. This brings us to the perennial theme of postwar Japanese democracy: how to bring about healthy party competition in a one-party dominant system. Faced with no clear choice of government and policy alternatives, disaffected voters may continue to opt out. In turn, democratic legitimacy, accountability, and responsiveness will suffer further.

This election, then, provides another opportunity to think about why a credible opposition doesn’t emerge. The place to start is to look back at what has driven the behavior of Japan’s opposition parties in recent years.

Rootless Parties and Migratory Bird Politicians

We have been here before.

Prior to the 1993 general election, the LDP splintered. New parties consisting of LDP defectors and those led by former governors emerged, resulting in the brief ousting of the LDP from power. It is instructive that the three key actors in today’s drama—Maehara, Koike, and Edano—won their first Diet seats as candidates for the new anti-LDP parties in 1993.

Following this election, the opposition underwent kaleidoscopic mergers and fractures. The Democratic Party of Japan (precursor of the DP) eventually emerged as a unified opposition, albeit badly divided internally by ideological differences and personal rivalries. Though the DPJ captured the government in 2009, the party then promptly imploded. The 2012 general election proved a mess involving nine parties, including two new regional parties: the Osaka-based Japan Innovation Party, led by the Osaka governor Hashimoto Tōru, on the right and the ephemeral Tomorrow Party led by Shiga Governor Kada Yukiko.

The fragmenting of the opposition into smaller parties, which advantages the LDP, reflects the conflicting pressures of Japan’s hybrid electoral system. The single-member districts (currently 289 districts) introduced to the lower house in 1994 push smaller parties to unite and back a single candidate in these districts. Yet the seats in its proportional representation tier (currently 176) allow smaller parties—such as the Communists and Kōmeitō, as well as third-pole parties—to survive, rather than choose to merge into one of the two biggest parties. Small parties with no hope of capturing a parliamentary majority thus proliferate in what was supposed to become a two-party system.

The ongoing instability of the opposition also reflects a compulsion to rebrand. Since the DPJ left government in 2012, support ratings for the party, even when later repackaged as the DP, have trailed around or below 10%, in contrast to around 40% for the LDP. With a “domino effect” among defecting politicians, many in the moribund opposition were ready to latch onto the Party of Hope for a new start. Politicians have thus switched between parties to rebrand themselves (or simply stood as independents if they have a strong enough personal base, choosing to join a winning party after elections). For example, Koike, a renowned “migratory bird,” has cycled through seven different parties in the last 25 years. Despite their evanescence, joining such parties gives footloose politicians access to party subventions—vital campaigning money—as well as a right to stand as a candidate on a PR list (insurance against losing in their single-member district).

The instability of these parties has also been due to, and has further exacerbated, the hollowness of their party organizations. The DPJ, which lasted for nearly two decades, failed to establish a solid, nationwide base of local politicians and party members that would have rooted itself in society. This feeble organization meant a party vulnerable to volatile swing votes from election to election.

The decoupling of parties from society is general. LDP’s linkages to local communities and interest groups have also frayed due to declining redistribution and municipal mergers that have drastically reduced the number of local politicians. But comparatively speaking, the ruling party maintains a much stronger local network, especially in rural areas, while its coalition partner Kōmeitō’s disciplined base provides an edge in urban areas. When voter turnout is low, as it has been in recent elections, the LDP’s organizational edge becomes difficult to overcome.

This coming snap election will probably witness a similar dynamic. When Maehara announced the dissolution of the DP, its local branches and party members were not consulted. Many are now disgruntled and divided over which candidate to back. Meanwhile, Koike’s two top local lieutenants in Tomin First have already defected, boding poorly for organizational support for the Party of Hope from her Tokyo base. Even the Japanese trade union confederation (Rengō), the main organizational and financial backer for the DPJ/DP, has taken a back seat to the party’s dismantling. It, too, is internally divided over the center-left split.

All of this points to opposition parties that are essentially rootless vehicles, launched and jettisoned by politicians for electoral gain. They are not built or controlled from the bottom up, and are hence weak in their ability to represent and aggregate various interests in society at large. They have withdrawn from society; being no longer anchored to it, they lack what the party theorist Peter Mair described as “representational integrity.” They drift on top, largely self-sufficient until election time rolls around.

Floating Voters and Populist Strategies

Voters, in the meantime, have also been floating away from the parties. The number of Japanese voters with no loyalty to any party has roughly doubled since the 1980s. Depending on the polling company, the proportion of non-partisan voters has been hovering between a staggering 50%–70% in recent years. Simultaneously, membership in parties and candidate support organizations have fallen steadily from already low levels internationally.

The feebleness of Japanese party links to society was illustrated during the current election by the news that the number of CDPJ’s Twitter followers overtook that of the LDP within a week of the account’s launch. On October 10, the CDPJ had 162,000 followers, which is actually far less than the number of followers for individual politicians such as Hashimoto (1.9 million), Abe (750,000) or Koike (480,000). A Twitter follower is obviously no replacement for backing from engaged party members, local politicians, or interest groups.

Parties have thus resorted to chasing after these floating voters through a combination of media appeals focusing on the charisma/quality of party leaders and campaigning on emotive single-issues to rouse apathetic voters to the polls. These strategies have been used with spectacular success in the past decade, with Koizumi Jun’ichirō and Hashimoto Tōru being notable masters. Most back-benchers, particularly those with weak personal bases, have been happy to fall in behind such party leaders, so long as they generated enough “wind” to win in their own constituencies.

Koike has pursued a similar populist tack, pitting herself against the vested interests of the local LDP in her gubernatorial campaign and in leading her local party in the Tokyo assembly elections. Her attempt to recreate this “wind” nationally for the Party of Hope by framing herself as against Abe and cronyism has not taken off. Grasping for traction, her party platform has been watered down by a hodgepodge of catchy policies such as fighting hay fever and getting rid of utility poles by burying lines underground.

Edano, leading the CDPJ, has also sought to entice floating voters across the ideological spectrum by describing himself and his new party as both “liberal” and “conservative.” Emphasizing the need for bottom-up democracy and a party with roots in society, Edano has criticized the transient populist strategies of others. But the infant center-left party faces a long, and yet untraveled, road if it wants to do things differently: It will need to fashion a new collective identity out of the mass of disgruntled nonpartisans, organize them into a stable base of the party, and stand alone or in coalition as a credible alternative to the conservatives. For a party born less than a month before votes are cast, this may be beyond hope.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Tokyo governor and Party of Hope chief Koike Yuriko and Democratic Party President Maehara Seiji meet in Tokyo on October 5. © Jiji.)

election Abe Shinzō Democrats LDP Koike Yuriko Party of Hope CDPJ