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Is a Two-Party System in Japan Only a Dream?
The 2012 General Election and the Political Challenges Facing Japan

Masanobu Ido
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The Implications of the LDP's Landslide Victory and the Proliferation of Small Parties

Prime Minister Noda from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) dissolved the House of Representatives and called a general election at the end of 2012, as he had promised in exchange for the enactment of a bill to raise the consumption tax. The election resulted in a landslide victory for the opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which singlehandedly won 294 seats, ensuring a significant majority. The LDP then secured more than two thirds of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives by forming a coalition with the New Komeito Party (NKP), allowing the coalition to pass bills that are rejected in the Upper House with a second vote in the Lower House. On the other hand, despite the stir the DPJ created when it won 308 seats in the previous general election, the 2012 election ended in a crushing defeat for the party with only 57 seats, as voters severely criticized the administration's record over the last three years. Meanwhile, although the Japan Restoration Party (JRP) led by ever-controversial right-wing Shintaro Ishihara and nationally-popular Toru Hashimoto did not garner as many seats as expected, it succeeded in becoming the third most powerful party in the Lower House with 54 seats, just a few seats behind the DPJ.

As for the other parties besides the JRP that are collectively referred to as the "third force," the Your Party (YP) won 18 seats, while the Tomorrow Party of Japan (TPJ)-a party formed right before the 2012 election under a platform for "graduating from nuclear power" and joined by Ichiro Ozawa and many other defectors from the DPJ-won 9 seats. These parties, along with the NKP, which won 31 seats, and the Communist Party (JCP), which won 8 seats, secured their places as major parties in the Lower House. The expectation generated in the 2009 general election that a two-party system was emerging in Japan was not fulfilled. Instead, there has been a profound fragmentation of the political parties into smaller ones, and the party system has further compounded its divisions. In addition, a large number of politicians left the DPJ right before the election, when the party was beginning to look like a sinking ship. These defectors joined parties, like the JRP, that seemed popular, demonstrating their political savvy by winning seats in proportional-representation constituencies, even if they lost in the single-seat constituencies. It appears that political parties have become makeshift tools used by politicians as they please.

The LDP, however, should be careful not to misinterpret the results of the 2012 election or to make misguided political decisions or choices. For, as one can see by looking at the seats won in recent years by the ruling and opposition parties in Britain, home of the single-seat constituency system, the high number of seats allotted to the winning party and the wide variation in seat allotment are, in fact, produced by this election system. The fragmentation of the DPJ was precipitated by former Prime Minister Kan's sudden proposal for a consumption tax increase and Prime Minister Noda's forcing through of a bill to raise the consumption tax in opposition to the party's manifesto. Japan has wasted more than three precious years and missed opportunities for reform as it has been dragged down by inexperienced political leaders and a political party plagued by constant internal conflict. The result of the 2012 election-a landslide victory for the LDP-is simply the outcome of voters' great disappointment with the DPJ administration, which pursued its own goals time and time again, and the workings of the single-seat constituency system.

Has the LDP changed?

The 2012 election saw the return to power of the Liberal Democratic Party, a party that instituted mechanisms for economic growth and redistribution in postwar Japan. One after another, industry groups that were thought to favor the DPJ have been returning once again to the LDP. But has the LDP really changed, as Shinzo Abe insists? When one looks at the lineup of LDP members elected in 2012, a familiar sight appears-the birth of second-generation lawmakers and the revival of special-interest legislators who represent the interests of industry groups. The LDP's manifesto is equally old-fashioned, with extravagant plans for large-scale public works. Under the present circumstances, when companies are becoming more globalized and may take their business in Japan elsewhere at any time, can a party like this really revitalize the Japanese economy and provide young people with stable jobs, rather than temporary ones? T.J. Pempel, a prominent researcher of politics in Japan, has argued that economic globalization has made it difficult to achieve a balance between "pork [pork-barrel politics] and productivity" and that the rule of the LDP is in structural crisis. When the LDP was in power under the first Abe administration (2006-2007), the party's readmission of legislators who had rebelled against the privatization of the postal service alienated urban voters and young people who had supported Prime Minister Koizumi's reforms and led to the party's defeat in the 2007 Upper House election. As Abe steps up to his second round as prime minister, people are questioning his ability to accomplish the difficult tasks of securing traditional supporters and further expanding support for the party while promoting the deregulation of the Japanese economy.

Political Challenges Facing Japan

Majority-rule government based on a two-party system, which Japan worked toward during the political reforms of the 1990s, is a political mechanism in which the most powerful minority groups alternately take the reins of government, as A. Lijphart has pointed out. The voter turnout for the 2012 election was less than 60 percent-the lowest since the end of World War II-allowing the LDP to capture an overwhelming percentage of the seats with just a 43 percent share of the vote (in the single-seat constituencies). This means that a party supported by only one in four voters will be leading the Japanese government for a term of four years. The rationalization for this political mechanism is the hypothesis that the policies of the major parties in a two-party system will converge with the middle-ground opinion of the people. The results of the 2012 election have demonstrated that our current election system, which combines a single-seat constituency system and a proportional-representation system, does not always produce this outcome.

With the devastating defeat of the DPJ, the dream of a two-party system has proved to be nothing more than an illusion, and a fragmented party system with a gigantic ruling party (the LDP) and a plethora of small parties has emerged to take its place. If the DJP is unable to get back on its feet, it will be dragged around by small fringe parties advocating extreme positions, and Japanese politics may even descend into chaos. With international affairs becoming increasingly unstable due to the rise of China, political turmoil would have an incalculable impact on Japan's security and economy. At this point, we would do well to remember how the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands by Prime Minister Noda exceeded the aims of his administration, damaged Sino-Japanese relations, and resulted in the further stagnation of the Japanese economy. If, after acknowledging the drawbacks of majority-rule government, we, the Japanese people, decide we would like a political system that will facilitate changes of administration, our most urgent task will be to cultivate a responsible political party capable of competing with the LDP on equal terms.

Masanobu Ido
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Profile]
Areas of specialization: Political science, comparative politics
Professor Ido graduated from the School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University and earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago.
His major publications include The Comparative Politics of Economic Crises [Keizai Kiki no Hikaku Seijigaku] (Shinhyoron), Comparative Politics, Revised Ed. [Hikaku Seijigaku, Kaiteiban] (coauthored; Foundation for the Promotion of the Open University of Japan), and Comparative Political Economy [Hikaku Seiji Keizai Gaku] (coauthored; Yuhikaku).
His recent publications include Varieties of Capitalism, Types of Democracy and Globalization (London: Routledge), of which he is the editor.