Political parties with fewer than 20 Diet seats face an identity crisis as the legislature moves closer to a two-party system following the huge gains made by the Democratic Party of Japan in the July 2007 Upper House election.
With Lower House members’ terms expiring next September — unless Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolves the chamber early and calls a poll — small parties are struggling to make their presence known to voters.
Headlines tend to focus only on the rivalry between the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition, at the expense of smaller parties, which thus become virtually invisible.
But executives of the small parties are trying to appeal to voters by emphasizing their political roles.
“It is true we are struggling in the current (LDP-DPJ) two-party situation, but I think the Social Democratic Party is necessary. I’d like to say our role is big,” said SDP chief Mizuho Fukushima, who leads her 12-member party.
She said the SDP has been emphasizing its peace activities, including upholding the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, and its focus on employment, medical and environmental issues.
In terms of appealing for peace and promoting social democratic ideals, the SDP plays an especially important role, Fukushima said.
Hisaoki Kamei, secretary general of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), said since the decision-making process in the Diet is based on numbers, having few lawmakers naturally has disadvantages.
Kokumin Shinto was formed in 2005 by LDP defectors who opposed the postal privatization policies championed by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The party currently has 10 lawmakers.
Having numbers is essential in the Diet, not just to get bills passed. To be able to participate in “question times” — one-on-one debates between two parties’ leaders — a participating party must have more than 10 members in either chamber to qualify.
Of the Diet’s 722 lawmakers, nearly 600 are LDP and DPJ members.
Although Kokumin Shinto is small, Kamei said its lawmakers share strong bonds and stand united.
Kamei, former director general of the National Land Agency, which is part of the land ministry now, held important positions in the LDP. He said moving from the dominant party to a small force was tough.
As secretary general, Kamei said he has been especially careful about building relations with other opposition parties.
While small parties acknowledge their numeric disadvantages, they warn that the LDP-DPJ rivalry isn’t really a two-party system.
Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii stressed that it is unclear how the two parties differ politically.
“I think even LDP and DPJ members themselves do not really know that,” Shii said.
Fukushima of the SDP brought up a similar point: “One flaw of the two-party system is that the two parties become alike,” she said.
The seed of Japan’s two-party system was planted in 1994 when the electoral reform law was enacted to introduce single-seat constituencies in place of multiseat ones.
Lawmakers can now also be elected through proportional representation, based on votes for their party.
Those who promoted the electoral reforms hoped they could achieve the change in the government control with the single-seat constituency system, thinking it would create a two-party system.
Fukushima, Shii and Kamei all said they are against the single-seat system, claiming it fails to represent the minority voice of the public.
Shii called the single-seat constituency system undemocratic because the leading party and No. 2 party dominate most seats.
Fukushima and Kamei said the multiseat system should be restored and the proportional representation blocs increased to allow various people to become politicians.
Despite their hopes, change in the electoral system is unlikely anytime soon, so the parties somehow have to find ways to appear relevant.
Fukushima said one challenge for the SDP is to attract more female candidates as well as younger politicians.
In the next general election, the SDP hopes to win more than 10 seats, Fukushima said, adding a change in government must happen with that poll.
Since a political realignment is expected after the election, Fukushima said now is not the time to reveal her party’s strategy.
Shii said the JCP basically does not plan to become part of any coalition force if realignment only involves a shakeup within the LDP and the DPJ, as nothing new would emerge from such an event.
But the party plans to identify various issues, and if other parties share its views and are willing to cooperate on a policy-by-policy basis, the JCP would be receptive.
“For individual matters, we are willing to pursue cooperation,” Shii said.
He said the JCP aims to win more seats and votes in the 11 proportional representation blocs in the next poll.
The JCP has actually been increasing membership. One reason may be the recent popularity of former JCP member Takiji Kobayashi’s 1929 proletarian novel “Kani Kosen,” which chronicles the hardships of workers on crab boats. It is said that many, especially young people who work as temp workers, identify with the book.
The JCP has been actively addressing the recent temp-worker layoff issue, which may be another contributing factor for the JCP’s growth in membership. In December, Shii met senior officials of the Japan Business Federation and executives of Toyota Motor Corp. to urge them to protect the jobs of temp workers.
Since September 2007, the JCP has added more than 14,000 new members.
Shii said a lot of people agree with the JCP that there is a growing social disparity and the spread of temp workers is helping to fuel it.
“I think young people share our view that we have to create a society where it is natural for people to work full time,” he said.
As for Kokumin Shinto, Kamei said it hopes to win eight to 10 seats in the next election.
He also said LDP and DPJ members are not necessarily united based on ideals and policies, so it is unclear what kind of society they hope to make.
Therefore, political realignment based on policies should happen after the next general election, Kamei said.
“We, Kokumin Shinto, have clear ideals and policies. After the next election, political realignment will happen and I think we could play an important role,” he said, denying speculation that Kokumin Shinto may break up.
Despite the efforts of small parties to boost their presence, however, they have little chance of success, said Nobuhiro Hiwatari, professor of political science at the Institute of Social Science at the University of Tokyo.
“It is hard to imagine under the current election system that a small party can grow big by itself,” he said.
Hiwatari said one role small parties like the SDP and JCP could play is to present alternative fundamental social views and express voters’ discontent toward the LDP and DPJ.
But Kokumin Shinto is a bit different, Hiwatari said, adding its role may be more of a “bridge” between the two parties because its ranks are breakaway LDP elements.
While the SDP and JCP, which share fundamentalist ideas, will not really be key players in any political realignment, Hiwatari said Kokumin Shinto, even with 10 members, could play a pivotal role in a shakeup.