With the defeat of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan all but assured, the real uncertainty heading into the Dec. 16 Lower House election, campaigning for which kicked off Tuesday, is whether the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito alliance can secure a majority or whether the new “third-force” parties will take enough seats to be a factor.
While the overall picture is practically the reverse of the previous 2009 election, when the LDP had little hope of hanging on, there is an added wrinkle: New political parties have formed alliances to break into the virtual two-party system. These newcomers hope to attract voters fed up with the DPJ’s failure to implement promised policies and the decades-long rule of the LDP and its politics of playing to vested interests.
In all, 12 parties have thrown their hats in the ring. But the two new forces getting the most attention — Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan) — were born out of hasty mergers and have been criticized for chasing new members with a hodgepodge of policies instead of coherent agendas.
Critics have cast doubt on the two forces’ chances of success.
“It is natural for small parties to form alliances instead of remaining small independent groups, to strengthen their influence, but this time (Nippon Mirai) ended up emerging and forming a separate force. The two parties are going to end up (canceling) each other out,” said Sadafumi Kawato, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
Recent media polls bear this out. According to an Asahi Shimbun survey last weekend, 9 percent supported Nippon Ishin, the same figure as in the previous poll, while only 3 percent backed Nippon Mirai, which was formed just last week.
“I think these parties may win some seats in limited local areas, but I doubt their popularity will spread nationwide,” Kawato said. “Some of the votes that the DPJ is expected to lose will probably go their way, but I don’t think it is going to be a major boost.”
Meanwhile, the LDP remains the front-runner despite being led by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who quit a year into his term in 2007 and has now resurrected his hawkish, amend-the-pacifist-Constitution rhetoric.
During its three years as the opposition party, a span that included the March 11 disaster, the party has focused on only one thing — getting back into power.
Although the LDP insists it’s not the same party that fell from grace and that a recharged Abe is ready once again to take the helm, pundits are skeptical. In the same recent Asahi Shimbun survey, support for the LDP had slipped in a week from 23 to 20 percent.
“The LDP insists that it has changed, but I think it is difficult to say so. They are winning not because the people have high hopes for the LDP but rather because of very strong public disappointment with the DPJ,” Kawato said.
Nevertheless, the LDP and ally New Komeito are expected to come out on top on Dec. 16. Experts agree the LDP and New Komeito may form a coalition with Nippon Ishin, which was founded by popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and is currently led by hawkish former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.
Abe’s hawkishness is evident throughout the LDP’s 2012 policy platform, which calls for scrapping the “U.S.-imposed” war-renouncing Constitution and establishing a National Defense Force for collective self-defense, currently considered unconstitutional.
The rightward tilt is largely in sync with Nippon Ishin’s position.
Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University, expressed concern that all the talk of radical change will alarm Japan’s neighbors and damage the country’s status in the eyes of the international community.
“What’s important is not just to announce the policies they want to implement but to form a strategy on how to form a consensus among the public over (key issues), none of which I see,” Tanifuji said. “And if the LDP joins hands with Nippon Ishin and steers Japan to the right, I think that the public will start to doubt that is what it really wanted.”
But even if the three parties form a coalition, the fact remains that the Upper House will still be controlled by the opposition. Of the 242 seats in the upper chamber, the DPJ and New Komeito together have only 104, well short of a majority. Meanwhile, the DPJ holds the most seats of any single party, with 90.
Because of vast policy differences, pundits say an LDP-New Komeito-DPJ grand bloc is unlikely. Consequently, the new ruling force will have to come to terms with other opposition parties.
“I think there will be no true winner in this election because the Diet will still be divided no matter what,” Tanifuji said. “This means this is a transitional election and not the ultimate decider.”
Many were caught off guard when Noda, after months of stalling, abruptly declared the dissolution of the Lower House during a Diet debate with Abe last month.
The parties, including the DPJ, had to quickly marshal their candidates and devise policy platforms, a process all the harder for the small and newly formed parties, which responded with a spate of mergers.
All the while important issues remain unsettled relating to Japan’s nuclear power policy, the sales tax hike and participation in the tariff-erasing Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Tanifuji criticized Noda for the timing. It is the public, he believes, who are most disadvantaged by the confusion.
“This is an extremely unfortunate election for the voters because everything is so undecided — from the candidates to the policies — and the people are being forced to choose the ruling party in this environment. There are no past achievements to judge from nor clear visions of the future to place their hopes in,” Tanifuji said.