The air was somber Sunday evening at the Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, as party executives faced the media as the rival Democratic Party of Japan scored a historic victory.
A board with the names of hundreds of LDP candidates had only a few red flowers pinned on it, indicating the party’s sparse victories and reflecting what a drubbing the party had received.
With a grim face, Prime Minister Taro Aso said that he would step down to take responsibility for the huge loss.
“All of the candidates did their best, but I am, once again, sensing my own shortcomings,” Aso said. “I believe I have to take responsibility.”
The LDP’s junior coalition partner, New Komeito, backed by Soka Gakkai, the country’s largest lay Buddhist organization, also had a rough night with various key members struggling in their electoral districts, including its leader, Akihiro Ota, who lost.
Critics pointed out that the LDP needs to start from scratch as an opposition party. It will not be easy, however, for a party that has been in power for almost all of the postwar era and depended on bureaucrats to draft policies, they said.
“The LDP needs to break free from its old method of letting lawmakers with vested interests have control and instead come up with policies on its own,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University. “The DPJ has been nurturing that ability, but I wonder whether the LDP would be able to create attractive policies on its own, without the help of the bureaucrats.”
Norihiko Narita, president of Surugadai University, agreed, saying a spell in the opposition would give the LDP the chance to review its policies and rebuild the party.
“What will be important is for the LDP to become a sound opposition force and to endure extreme difficulties without collapsing,” said Narita. “Even if it loses badly, the LDP should firmly unite and review its policies. And by doing so, it may be able to seize control of the government in the future.”
But Narita, who served as secretary to then Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa when the LDP was briefly ejected from power in 1993, warned against the LDP playing dirty and digging for scandals like it did the last time it was in opposition.
During the period the LDP was out of power, it pursued a financial scandal involving Hosokawa, forcing him to quit after only 10 months.
The LDP then linked up with Tomiichi Murayama and what is now the Social Democratic Party. Backing Murayama as prime minister, the LDP returned to power in less than one year of being in opposition.
“The LDP has used all kinds of tricks to stay in power, but those methods have been used up,” Narita said. “Instead, it should review its policies and reorganize.”
The first step for the LDP is to choose its new president following Aso’s departure.
Critics say it is extremely hard to guess who would step up, but Iwai of Nihon University said health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, an outspoken and popular LDP Upper House lawmaker, was a likely candidate.
Iwai said Masuzoe was a possible candidate considering that the LDP will soon face another major political battle — the Upper House election next summer — and needs a popular leader for the campaign.
“To win the next Upper House election, the LDP needs a popular leader, someone considered a reformist,” Iwai said. “Old LDP lawmakers may reject Masuzoe because he is an Upper House lawmaker, but I don’t think the party is in a state to say such a thing.”
Meanwhile, New Komeito could also see the worst defeat in its history, losing its leader, Ota, who didn’t list himself as a proportional representation candidate as well.
“It would definitely be a miscalculation for New Komeito and it would have to review its organization from the core” if Ota loses, Iwai said. “This defeat is largely caused by the fact that it joined hands with the LDP.”
But political analysts said that because the coalition with the LDP will be canceled, New Komeito would eventually be able to move more freely.
For 10 years, the two parties have ruled Japan together, but unlike the conservative LDP, New Komeito has known pacifist views, and the two parties were said to have clashed on security policies.
“With the coalition annulled, it will have a free hand and hold an unbiased position,” Iwai said. “The coalition was unnatural from the beginning, so I think New Komeito will feel a sense of relief.”
Although the LDP and New Komeito suffered a devastating defeat in the Lower House poll, Iwai said it was predictable under the single-seat constituency system.
“Under a single-seat constituency, Japan will become a two-party system,” Iwai said.
“And voters are going to clearly seek a change in government power.”