Crisis in Japan's Party Politics
After months of pressure from the opposition to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda caught his foes off balance by doing just that. On November 14, Noda broke with precedent by using the occasion of a Diet debate to announce his intention to dissolve the lower house in just two days and hold a general election on December 16.
Noda had promised the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and its allies that he would dissolve the Diet "sometime soon" in return for their cooperation in passing a hike in the consumption tax last August. When three months went by with no announcement, LDP President Shinzo Abe went so far as to call Noda a liar.
Such was the basic theme of the statement with which Abe launched the party leaders' debate in the Diet on November 14. (The 45-minute debate, modeled after the British Parliament's "question time," was adopted in 1999 as a weekly routine but has been held only sporadically in recent months.) Speaking over raucous catcalls, Noda defended himself against the opposition's charges of bad faith and said that he would call an election provided the LDP supported his plan to reduce the number of seats in the Diet and address the problem of unequal representation. Pressed further, he declared that if the LDP pledged to follow through on those reforms, he was prepared to dissolve the lower house in just two days.
The statement momentarily sucked the air out of the crowded committee room. For a prime minister to give only two days' warning before dissolving the Diet is highly unusual, and announcing the date in the midst of Diet proceedings is unheard of. Certainly no one in the opposition—and very few in Noda's own party—saw it coming. For one brief moment, the Japanese political world was dancing to the prime minister's tune.
The moment passed quickly, however, leaving Noda's Democratic Party of Japan with the imminent prospect of a crushing electoral defeat.
In August 2009, a disillusioned and disgusted electorate voted the long-ruling LDP out of power and placed the DPJ at the helm for the first time. Unfortunately, the DPJ failed to deliver, dashing the public's hopes for a new era in Japanese politics. The administrations of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his successor Naoto Kan were marked by policy setbacks and an increasingly dysfunctional Diet. Public support for the DPJ government dropped precipitously from an early high of 70%. Noda's own approval rating has hovered at around 20%. Recent polls indicate that only about 15% of the electorate currently supports the DPJ—about half the fraction that favors the disgraced LDP.
Faced with such dismal numbers, most of the DPJ strenuously opposed early Diet dissolution. Why did Noda call an election now, knowing that his party faced almost certain defeat?
Some have simply concluded the prime minister could not bear to be called a liar any longer, but I would suggest that a little more thought went into his announcement. I believe Noda's foremost consideration was the need to ensure full implementation of the tax and social security reform embarked on with the cooperation of the LDP and the New Komeito. Although the Diet passed the legislation last August, the new tax rate does not go into effect for another year and a half. Delaying the election further would have prolonged the current political crisis, eroding confidence in the economy. A further economic setback could have led to second thoughts about a tax increase. As I see it, Noda's top priority was putting an end to the current political dysfunction so as to ensure continued progress on these essential fiscal reforms.
But Noda also seems to regard the coming election as an opportunity to rebuild the DPJ for the future. The DPJ has expanded by absorbing Diet members from across the political spectrum, including defectors from the Social Democratic Party, the conservative LDP, and various middle-of-the-road groups. But the DPJ's internal diversity has been a source of disunity, and its perennial internecine conflicts over policy and personnel have only intensified as popular support for the party has waned.
Over 60 politicians have defected from the DPJ in recent months, most of them citing opposition to the consumption tax increase. The party is also divided over Japan's participation in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership—supported by Noda but opposed by old-school rural conservatives in the DPJ. Noda's threat to include the TPP in the party's election platform seems designed to rid the party of these dissident elements, leaving a smaller but more ideologically cohesive party. With a more coherent, unified message, the DPJ could ultimately regain popular support and recover from the losses that the upcoming election are sure to inflict. This appears to be Noda's long-term goal.
Drawing the Battle Lines
In a press conference immediately following his dissolution of the lower house on November 16, the prime minister set forth five basic election issues: social security, economic policy, energy policy, defense and foreign policy, and political reform.
In terms economic growth, Noda proposes to revitalize the Japanese economy with a more outward-looking, free-trade approach centered on participation in the TPP, and he has criticized Abe's call for increased public-works spending as a return to the wasteful pork-barrel politics of the old LDP. In the area of energy, he has called for Japan to reduce its dependence on nuclear energy to zero by the 2030s. With respect to foreign policy, Noda is particularly critical of Abe's hardline, hawkish stance on Japan's territorial disputes with China and South Korea, arguing that "tough talk may be popular, but these extremist positions offer no prospect for real solutions."
Abe, for the most part, has stayed true to his traditional conservative roots. He proposes to build "a strong economy" by pursuing more aggressive policies to reverse deflation and the yen's rise. He calls for a foreign policy focused on national self-interest, an increase in defense spending, and a new interpretation of the Constitution that would sanction collective self-defense. In many ways, his positions hark back to Ronald Reagan's prescription for a "strong America."
But the differences between the DPJ and the LDP are far less fundamental than pre-election rhetoric might suggest. The two parties have already struck a deal on the key domestic issue of tax and social security reform. On energy, they may use different language, but both seek a gradual reduction in dependence on nuclear power. In terms of the TPP, the LDP has opposed the idea of across-the-board elimination of all tariffs but seems to realize that Japan needs to take part in the negotiations. In the area of security, both parties place top priority on the Japan-US alliance. In short, the debate between the DPJ and the LDP is a far cry from the deep left-right ideological divide of the Cold War years, when the biggest challenge to the ruling LDP came from the Japan Socialist Party. The outcome of the coming election is unlikely to usher in any radical changes in Japan's economic, foreign, or defense policies.
The differences between the DPJ and the LDP have to do primarily with the speed and process of change. The DPJ promised a faster pace of change but has largely failed to deliver—owing in part to its inexperience as a governing party—and most voters are unwilling to give it another chance. The LDP, for its part, has been looking very much like the hide-bound conservative party that voters rejected three years ago—particularly since its leadership reverted to Shinzo Abe, who served as prime minister in the years leading up to the LDP's fall from power.
Meanwhile, the two major parties are facing competition from a host of smaller parties—the largest number in the history of postwar general elections. Parties have sprouted up like mushrooms over the past few years; at last count (just before the lower house was dissolved), there were 15 separate organizations controlling seats in the Diet. Most of the smaller parties were formed by politicians who defected from the LDP or the DPJ over specific policies, such as privatization of the postal service under Prime Minister Jun'ichiro Koizumi or the consumption tax increase under Noda. But in recent weeks the media has spotlighted a handful of new parties led by charismatic "outsiders" like Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara as potential magnets for disaffected mainstream politicians. On November 17—galvanized by the prospect of a general election in a month's time—Hashimoto and Ishihara joined forces under the name of Hashimoto's party: the Japan Restoration Party.
How can we account for such an unprecedented proliferation of minor parties, most of them barely distinguishable from one another? One factor is the hybrid electoral system adopted in the mid-1990s, under which even a small party has a chance of gaining a lower house seat assigned by proportional representation. Another is the political finance system adopted around the same time that provides annual government subsidies to any party with five or more Diet members (approximately 50 million yen per Diet member). And a third is voter disaffection, which has proceeded to the point where close to 50% of eligible Japanese voters describe themselves as independent. This has made the chances of any one party gaining a majority of seats in the lower house very slim, ushering in an era of coalitions in which the leader of any party with seats in the Diet—however few—has an opportunity to play a role in the new administration.
Can the rise of these new parties inject new vitality into Japan's parliamentary democracy? It would be nice to think so. But the Diet members who have bolted the ruling party are overwhelmingly imperiled politicians facing the prospect of defeat in the next election. By making a public display of their disagreement with the party leadership over an unpopular policy like the tax increase, they hoped to grab some media attention and win over enough voters to hold onto their Diet seats. In short, most of these splinter groups are little more than mutual aid societies for struggling politicians.
To my mind, the proliferation of new parties is a sign not of political renewal but of rampant opportunism. It reflects the growing tendency by this nation's politicians to do or say whatever it takes to win reelection, placing their individual political fortunes above the greater good. It signals the triumph of mobocracy, not the revitalization of our democratic system. While the Japan Restoration Party has the potential to make significant gains in the coming election, the vast majority of these groups are doomed—quite rightly—to failure and extinction.