JPRI Working Paper No. 96, December 2003
Can Japan Change Governments?
by Sam Jameson
On November 9, 2003, Japanese voters moved toward creating a two-party political system, but Japan still has a long way to go before it becomes a country in which changes of government occur periodically.
An election for the lower house of Parliament undermined the dominance of the Liberal Democrats and heightened their reliance upon the followers of the Soka Gakkai (Value Creating Society) who provide the bulk of support for the Komei (Clean Government) Party, but fell short of giving the Democratic Party a foothold big enough to reach out for a majority in the next election.
The Democratic Party wound up with the highest percentage of seats any opposition party has won in the lower house of Parliament since a hodge-podge of post-World War II parties amalgamated into the Liberal Democratic and Socialist Parties in 1955. The Democrats' 177 winners, however, amounted to 36.88% of the seats, only a hair's breadth larger than the previous opposition record - a holding of 35.76% of the seats won in 1958 by the Socialist Party. In 1958, the number of seats won by the Socialists was 167, including 1 unaffiliated winner who joined the Socialists after the election, in a 467-member House of Representatives.
The 1958 election result was enough to worry many American officials, including the late Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer, that the Liberal Democrats might eventually lose control of the government to the then Marxist-imbued Socialist Party. Yet, voters never rejected the LDP. Ichiro Ozawa and Masayoshi Takemura drove it out of power in 1993 by igniting a rebellion in which 47 incumbents bolted the ruling party, opening the door to a 10-month rule by a coalition of anti-LDP politicians - including both the Morihiro Hosokawa and Tsutomu Hata Administrations.
Ozawa, the coalition's master strategist, was so successful in luring defectors away from the ruling party that at one point LDP holdings were slashed to only 200 seats, 56 shy of a majority. Defections of just another dozen LDP lower house members would have tipped the scales in favor of Ozawa's forces. Yet that grand experiment also failed when the Socialist Party switched sides and rescued the Liberal Democrats by bringing them back into power in a coalition of strange bedfellows headed by Socialist Chairman Tomiichi Murayama.
In most any other democracy, voters this time would have thrown out any ruling party that presided over, first, a Bubble Economy and, then, an uncontrolled bursting of the bubble, a collapse of land and stock prices, a flood of bad loans crippling the banking system, rising unemployment, and 14 years of economic stagnation. "If an economic crisis had continued for as long as 10 years in South Korea, there would have been a coup," Kim Ki Cheon, an editorial writer for the Chosun Ilbo, said at a Keidanren symposium last March.
Democrat leader Naoto Kan's goal of electing 200 representatives, if anything, was modest in relation to the mess that Japan has muddled through since stock market prices started plummeting in 1990. Yet, his party, freshly merged with Ozawa's Liberal Party, managed to gain only 28 seats from what the two parties achieved separately in the last election in 2000.
If measured against the 137 seats the Democrats held going into election, the gain amounted to an impressive 40 seats. However, their new holding of 177 seats still leaves the Democrats 64 seats shy of a majority. Even if they were able to lure the Komeito Party away from its alliance with the LDP, they would still need unusually large gains even to paste together a coalition after the next lower house contest. The newly elected lower house members won four-year terms that will expire in November, 2007, or whenever the prime minister dissolves the chamber to call a general election before then.
Many voters continue to worry about entrusting the government to anyone but the Liberal Democrats. Japan could thus develop a new two-party system but one in which control of the government would not change. The "1955 structure" of the LDP vs. the Socialists was also a two-party system in its core.
Also standing in the way of a change of government is the sparse strength of the Democrats in the upper house, for which an election will be held next summer. In that chamber, Kan's party holds only 28% of the seats.
Even more troublesome for the Democrats is the fact that voters are getting accustomed to stagnation. On Nov. 14, the Cabinet Office announced that real growth for the July-September period expanded at an annualized rate of 2.2% although deflation drove down nominal growth to an annualized decline of 0.1% for the three-month period. Those figures, however, sounded comforting in the aftermath of an average growth of around 1% a year during Japan's "lost decade" of the 1990s.
A finger pressure therapist put it this way: "Most Japanese are leading comfortable daily lives, and feel that no matter who you vote for, nothing will change."
Ichiro Ozawa, citing unspecified opinion polls, said the Democrats failed to overcome the conviction of more than 60% of the voters that "even if they cast ballots, no change in the LDP government would occur." As a result, many voters failed to cast ballots, he complained. "If 65% of the voters had gone to the polls, we might have won a plurality," he said. The turnout, however, was only 59.86%, the second lowest.
That didn't stop Kan and the Democrats from trying to take over the government. Repeatedly during the campaign, Kan urged the voters to give the Democrats the opportunity to experience running the government.
For his part, Koizumi did an about-face from the tactics he employed during his first two years in office when he declared he would "break" the LDP if "forces of resistance" in the party sabotaged his reform plans. Even supporters give Koizumi only passing marks for the small amount of innovation he actually has implemented.
Yet, when the campaign began, Koizumi suddenly declared that he had transformed the LDP into "a party of reform." Now, he claimed, the party supports his advocacy of structural reforms, including privatization of government corporations, deregulation of the economy, and transfer of power from the central to local governments.
The mind-boggling claim of LDP enlightenment contrasted sharply with Koizumi's inability to get the party to commit itself to privatization of the post services, a pet project that Koizumi has championed during his entire political career. The party's platform wound up saying only that a decision on privatization would be made next year.
Kan counter-attacked by charging that the Liberal Democrats, locked in collusion with bureaucrats and businessmen, were incapable of carrying out reform. He promised to carry out change by taking power out of the hands of bureaucrats - but in mid-campaign announced that if the Democrats won, he would name one of the nation's most famous bureaucrats (Eisuke Sakakibara, former vice minister of finance) as finance minister in his first cabinet.
The Democrats drew up an exhaustive - and exhausting - 19-page "Manifesto" of pledges but wound up highlighting a plan to eliminate tolls from expressways, except in the large cities. Apart from a passing reference to a pledge to create "banks that can loan money," the Manifesto said nothing about the big issues that Japan has faced for more than 13 years -- bad loans estimated by the Democrats at $1.4 trillion that have crippled the banking system, an 8-year-old policy of virtually eliminating interest income, and how much growth Japan should seek in the future. One-year savings account earns only 0.001 percent interest a year at present - or 10 yen on a 1,000,000-yen deposit.
For his part, Koizumi insisted that banks were moving forward in tackling their bad debts and talked about a languid 2% growth as his ultimate goal for what he called "recovery" in 2006. Like Kan, he avoided mentioning the government's "zero interest" policy.
With neither party tackling the major problems of the economy head-on, recovery of economic vitality appeared unlikely for the foreseeable future. Similarly, debate on constitution revision remained vague enough to avoid creating tensions - or any outlook for action to implement revisions.
Koizumi said the LDP would come up with its proposals for constitutional revision in 2005 but added that he would not push for amendments (which requires approval of two-thirds approval of all members of Parliament) as long as he is prime minister. (Koizumi has also said he would step down when his current term as LDP president ends in 2006.)
Individual candidates from both sides of the political fence in Tokyo pledged to reform the national pension system that is collapsing under the weight of Japan's rapidly aging population, strengthen police to fight what they called "rising crime by foreigners" and make sure that the government pays special attention to the needs of indebted small and medium enterprises.
On foreign policy, Koizumi insisted that Japan would dispatch a small contingent of troops to work in the rehabilitation of Iraq -- only to backtrack after the election when suicide bombing attacks erupted in a section of Iraq that Japan had selected for its troops to keep them out of danger.
On North Korea, Kan said he would take preparatory steps to impose economic sanctions on North Korea if it refused to clear up questions about abductions of Japanese citizens, while Koizumi ruled out sanctions so long as negotiations over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear development continued.
Nonetheless, some significant changes emerged in the November 9 election. For the first time, voters decisively rejected Japan's minor parties. In the past, these have served as a major obstacle to changes in government by splintering anti-LDP votes. The Conservative New Party, the Communists, and the Socialists together lost 28 seats - a far worse blow than the LDP suffered.
Indeed, the Conservative New Party dissolved itself and merged into the LDP, which gained 3 other seats as unaffiliated winners also joined the party. As a result, LDP holdings expanded to 244 seats, a majority of 4 the 480-seat lower house instead of a 4-seat shortfall produced by the vote counting alone.
Still, the Liberal Democrats' holdings were fragile enough that Koizumi will be forced to lean upon the Komei (Clean Government) Party and its Soka Gakkai (Value Creating Society) Buddhists for support more than ever before. Indeed, LDP elders acted as if they had given up trying to win a majority on their own. During the vote counting, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori even commented that "since it's difficult for the LDP to win a majority, it's good enough to have the coalition win a stable majority."
In contrast, the Democrats topped the LDP in proportional representation winners and made inroads into traditional LDP strongholds. The results undermined Koizumi's standing within the LDP, whose candidates had hoped to ride his 60% support ratings to victory, and raised new questions about his ability to overcome stiff resistance to his efforts to privatize both the postal services and government highway corporations.
Results of Nov. 9, 2003 lower house election
NOTE: Two numbers in the same box shows (1) the vote-counting results and (2) NOTE: Two numbers in the same box shows (1) the vote-counting results and (2) the totals after post-election realignments.
** The Liberal Party merged into the Democratic Party in 2003. In the 2000 election, the Democrats won 127 seats and the Liberal Party won 22 seats. The two numbers are combined in the Democrats post-2000 total for comparison with the merged partys results in the 2003 election.
SAM JAMESON, a journalist who has lived in Japan since 1960, is a former Tokyo Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Japan Times, November 11, 2003.