Japan’s Democracy Comes of Age

Photo by Andrew James

A slow motion political evolution that commenced some 15 years ago in Japan is beginning to bear fruit. The long quest to transform the country into a competitive, two-party democracy is closer to realization than some, including longtime Japan watchers, are willing to admit. It was first manifested in the Liberal Democratic Party’s blowout in 2005. Last week the opposition Democratic Party of Japan returned the favor, handing the LDP an historic defeat in the election for half of the House of Councilors, Japan’s senate.

To understand what has happened, it is necessary to look back to the situation that prevailed from the founding of the LDP in 1955 to the 1990s. Japan’s Diet was essentially gerrymandered to ensure that the LDP maintained a firm grip on government. Parliamentarians were chosen from large, multi-member districts. That meant that successful candidates often won with only about 10 per cent of the vote, or less. This system put a premium on local connections and pork barrel politics. Issues? Who needs issues?

Rigged for Decades

Electoral boundaries drawn in the 1950s remained unchanged, even as rural areas emptied due to urban migration. The main “opposition,” the Socialist Party of Japan, was stuck in Cold War thinking, often more Marxist than the Japanese Communists. The party had no real interest in governing, only in maintaining enough seats to deny the LDP the two-thirds majority needed to change the Japan’s pacifist constitution. It seldom ran enough candidates to form a majority even if they were all successful.

It was fashionable at the time to say that the fault lay somewhere in the Japanese psyche, that the country was not suited to the give-and take of real democracy, or democracy was not suited to it. Never mind that the voters often displayed a healthy “throw-the-bums-out” attitude at the local and prefecture levels.

Things started to change in 1993 with a successful no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who recently died. That ushered in several years of confusion, including the absurdity of a socialist premier supported by an LDP majority. Nevertheless, change was in the offing.

First, the Diet junked the multi-member districts and replaced them with 300 single-member seats (the rest of the 480-seat House of Representatives elected through proportional representation).

Second, the opposition went through several metamorphoses, finally coalescing into the present Democratic Party. In doing so it abandoned its knee-jerk opposition to the self-defense forces and the US-Japan Security Agreement in pursuit of votes.

The Democrats have not yet sealed the deal in convincing the Japanese people that they are a viable alternative government. Their big win last week doesn’t change that since the government depends on a majority in the lower house, whose members were not up for re-election. But they are getting closer.

Meanwhile, politics are undergoing a sea change.

The rise of issues

For one thing Japanese elections have become much more issue-oriented than before. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Diet and called a general election on the sole issue of privatizing the postal system in 2005 and picked up more than 80 seats.

Of course, Koizumi was shrewd enough to add some dramatics to the election by expelling dissident members from his own party and recruiting celebrities to run against them with official party endorsements, giving the press plenty to feast on.

There was perhaps no overriding issue involved in the recent election, unless anger over a big screw-up in pension accounting constitutes an “issue”. But the voters sent a clear message that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s priorities were not theirs.

Abe is a curious figure to lead Japan in this new political era. He is the youngest prime minister since the end of World War II and the first born after the war. Yet he seems very much a part of the old order.

The grandson of a prime minister and the son of a prominent politician whose rise to prime minister was cut short by death, Abe grew up closely cosseted by his family’s advisers and hangers on, and he seems to have absorbed their obsession with nationalist ideas such as rewriting the constitution.

As of this writing Abe is resisting demands that he resign (previous premiers have resigned over lesser defeats), but one can imagine that he will change his tune. A major test comes with the anniversary of the end of World War II when Abe will have to decide whether to follow his predecessor’s footsteps by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. So far, he has finessed that sensitive issue.

As issues have become more important in elections, the influence of geography also has declined. It is hard to think of the LDP as being beholden to rural interests when in 2005 the party captured every one of Tokyo’s 25 Diet seats, save two – unseating 10 Democrats in the process.

At the same time in the House of Councilors election, the Democrats knocked off LDP stalwarts in many rural and depopulated districts that had been LDP strongholds for generations.

As many political observers have noted, the most important political development is the emergence of a large floating electorate with no strong attachment to any party. As this phenomenon grows, expect to see many more wild swings in Japanese elections.