8:00 a.m. JST, October 1, 2022
As the extraordinary session of the Diet begins in October, opposition parties will take center stage. They will interview Cabinet ministers and government officials to keep a spotlight on the deep relationship between the religious group known as the Unification Church and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The church is considered a religious cult and has caused many tragedies among the families of its members. One such victim is the alleged assassin of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Along with the controversy over Abe’s state funeral a few days ago, political offensives by opposition parties have dented Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s approval ratings. It is likely that a cabinet minister or LDP party leader will suffer a severe blow in the Diet debate due to improper involvement with the church. If this happens, the opposition parties will brag about having corrected a political injustice. Indeed, they will have done an excellent job.
We’ve seen scenes like this before. Opposition parties have researched and jumped on the scandals and wrongdoings not only of the Kishida administration, but of all past LDP administrations. However, these efforts have not made the opposition a reliable force in their own right. The opposition parties successively lost three elections to the lower house and four elections to the upper house. Clearly voters did not give much weight to this style of inquiry and attack when considering who to vote for.
After the establishment of the long-dominant LDP in 1955, the main opposition parties separated and regrouped on several occasions. During the first four decades, the most important was the Social Democratic Party, which was succeeded by the New Frontier Party, then the Democratic Party and finally, currently, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. Many were positioned as centre-left parties to take on the conservative LDP.
In retrospect, opposition parties have defeated the LDP only four times in 45 upper and lower house elections. Their success rate is about 10%. When we compare it with the centre-left parties of other developed countries, it is clear that it is extremely low. In the United States, the Democratic Party won eight of 17 presidential elections during the same period. The British Labor Party and the German Social Democratic Party achieved a victory rate of around 40% in the general election.
The main opposition parties in Japan today are the centre-left CDPJ, the centre-right Ishin no Kai (Innovation Party of Japan), the People’s Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party. The political differences between them are so critical that they cannot cooperate to build an electoral force equal to the ruling camp of the PLD and its coalition partner Komeito.
A July poll by The Yomiuri Shimbun showed 80% of voters say there is a need for an opposition party that can compete with the LDP. But two-thirds thought the current opposition parties did not have enough enforceable policies. Although 63% of respondents want to see a transfer of power to an opposition party at regular intervals, most respondents believe this will not become a reality any time soon.
Voters’ views of the main opposition party remained unchanged even when such a party was replaced by another. Their main flaw is the absence of a realistic national security policy. Due to the strong anti-military sentiment of some members, the parties were unable to form coherent security policies. These members advocated extreme pacifism even during the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union threatened Japan with its enormous armed forces. And they continue to hold such views even now, as China has become a global military power with its intimidating diplomacy.
The Democratic Party, which won victory and a change of government in the 2009 general election, quickly lost popularity due to its mismanagement of the realignment of US military bases in Okinawa Prefecture. The administration undermined the credibility of the Japan-US alliance and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign.
The opposition faced a difficult situation after Abe took over the reins of government in 2012, becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. One reason is that the then Democratic Party misjudged Abe’s PLD and thought he had drifted too far to the right. They claimed that the Democratic Party, not the LDP, was essentially in the moderate mainstream. But Abe’s economic and social policies fell far short of what the opposition claimed, including moderate policies like urging society to improve job opportunities for women, which goes against the LDP’s outdated family values, or raising the minimum wage, which had been a key left-wing political factor. As the LDP had co-opted some policies of the opposition parties, the Democratic Party and its successor, the CDPJ, could not take countermeasures and had no choice but to swing further to the left, which meant losing the broad support of moderate parties. voters. In fact, the CDPJ had even promoted relations with the far-left JCP, only to lose seats in lower house elections last year, after which the party leadership resigned.
A more serious problem is that the main opposition party is supported mainly by older people and is seen as a vested interest party. Although they were called progressives, they lost their pro-reform position of changing Japan’s economic and social structure. Clearly, the key to gaining voters’ trust is to move beyond being a party that simply resists changes to the status quo.
If the opposition parties had another path to power, I guess it would be a grand coalition with the LDP. Unfortunately, they lost their few chances to form one. In Japan, this idea was rejected because its image is reminiscent of the Imperial Aid Association which supported the total war regime during World War II. But there have been precedents in democratic European countries. Germany’s SDP and Britain’s Labor Party have benefited from grand coalitions. These parties have learned to govern and gained public trust.
As such opportunities rarely arise, the opposition, especially the larger party, has a long way to go. Their to-do list includes holding in-depth discussions on national security issues, refreshing proactive policies supported by the younger generation, strengthening their weak grassroots organizations, and more.
If the ruling party fails and loses its credibility, the opposition takes its place. This is the normal process of constitutional democratic government. The two-party system is an unrealized dream in Japan. But it is worth pursuing, as long as the people want it and the opposition strives for reform.
Political Pulse appears every Saturday.
Tanaka is Senior General Manager, General Manager of Administration of the Yomiuri Shimbun. His previous position was editor-in-chief.