Is there a crisis of Japanese democracy?

Asia Politics World

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW

Japan’s Upper House elections have traditionally offered an opportunity for a protest vote against incumbent governments, but there is little chance of such a vote unseating the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito coalition on 21 July 2019. A record of voter apathy and low voter turnout at national elections since the LDP returned to power in December 2012 suggests that Japanese voters have lost faith in the opposition parties and in the possibility of a change of government.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question at the upper house's budget committee session at the National Diet in Tokyo, Japan, 27 March 2019 (Photo: Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO/Reuters).

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question at the upper house's budget committee session at the National Diet in Tokyo, Japan, 27 March 2019 (Photo: Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO/Reuters).

This is despite polls showing that most Japanese voters are uncomfortable with the LDP’s dominance in the Diet and over the government. The main opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), is actually making the state of Japanese democracy and the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office election issues. This strategy is driven by the odour of corruption that hangs over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his office, several past and serving ministers, and elements of the bureaucracy. The Abe administration has refused to be held accountable in numerous cases of malfeasance and incompetence on its part.

Added to this is the government’s high-handedness in managing the Diet. On occasions, Abe and other cabinet members such as Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso have treated the Diet with nothing short of contempt. Abe feigned slumber when CDPJ leader Yukio Edano and other opposition politicians demanded answers on particular issues and attempted to hold him to account in Diet debates. Successive election victories have only fed this arrogance.

During the Abe years, Japan has shown itself to be a complacent democracy that tolerates behaviour that challenges fundamental norms of democratic accountability. The only hope for the opposition is holding the ruling coalition to a majority of Upper House seats, not a supermajority of two-thirds. But both Abe and Komeito party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi are running a negative campaign in stressing the need for ‘stability’ in politics and the ‘disarray’ that an opposition government would inevitably bring by revisiting the supposed ‘chaos’ of the Democratic Party of Japan years (2009–2012). This tactic cleverly plays on voter fears of political instability associated with anything less than a stable majority for the LDP-led coalition and is an indirect way of encouraging independent voters not to vote.

At this juncture, the crisis of Japanese democracy is the inability of the opposition parties to offer any serious alternatives to the LDP, furthering Japan’s transition to an ‘authoritarian leadership with weak opposition’. The big question facing Japanese politics now is whether Japan’s fractured opposition can realistically aspire to take power from the LDP in the foreseeable future. With history on the LDP’s side, it is difficult to be optimistic.

The opposition has stopped splintering for the time being, but fluidity could return at any time as politicians calculate whether or not their political fortunes might improve by moving to another party. When parties change members at regular intervals and are still constructing a solid and distinctive policy identity, it is difficult for them to project themselves as clear and viable alternatives to the electorate.

Some opposition parties in Japan have been temporary alliances of political convenience among individual politicians without strong party attachments and founded on naked political opportunism — ideals, principles and political philosophies have taken second place. This is both the cause and effect of weak party identification by voters. Yet, the opposition’s current tactic of jointly endorsing individual candidates in single-member districts has been judged a necessary evil. While it blurs policy differences, it helps to avoid splitting the anti-government vote.

Ironically, being a ‘catch-all party’ has been key to the LDP’s enduring political predominance. Continuing electoral success and a shared desire to remain in power holds the party together by acting as a strong uniting force and a deterrent to breakaway movements. If the LDP began to shed Diet members to other political groupings, it could mark a transition to decline and defeat.

Compounding the opposition’s electoral woes is the absence of any strong opposition to Abe from within his own party. It appears internally stable for his current term as LDP president until September 2021. Not only has Abe led the party to successive electoral victories, but his factional support profile is rock solid. He leads an ‘all mainstream’ factional government. In the 2018 LDP leadership election, he secured the support of all the party’s factions — except for the small Ishiba faction — despite not polling so well amongst party rank-and-file.

An ‘all mainstream’ factional government provides a much more secure base for a prime minister than the mixed profiles common in past decades of LDP rule. Added to this is Abe’s success in weathering scandals without permanent or fatal damage. For LDP candidates, riding on Abe’s coat-tails remains a positive experience despite clear evidence that he is personally disliked by many voters. For the time being, there is little chance of the party itself challenging Abe’s leadership. Only a poor LDP performance in the Upper House election would make this a possibility.

A possible bright spot for the opposition is the ‘female factor’ encouraged by a 2018 law mandating parties to make efforts to run more women candidates. This may help increase support for the opposition in this election as a clear conservative–progressive divide has emerged around the issue of female candidacies.

The vast majority of female candidates are running for opposition parties. A good proportion of them are running in the prefectural electoral districts where face-to-face campaigning is important. By contrast, the LDP is not even paying lip service to the law. The proportion of female LDP candidates is even lower than in the 2016 Upper House election.

The future of Japanese democracy is at risk. Japan’s opposition parties will need to do much more if they are to offer voters a serious alternative to the LDP–Komeito coalition in future elections.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

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