With so many parties — and their seemingly mix-and-match policy positions — vying in the Dec. 16 Lower House election, voters are facing a difficult choice. Even so, all the sudden mergers and policy rejiggering suggest the new parties would be no better than their predecessors at breaking the tradition of broken promises in politics.
No sooner had Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared the dissolution of the Lower House, new parties, most prominently Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan) emerged, holding out the promise to voters of putting an end to the “two-party system” dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan.
When the current Lower House makeup was established, with 300 single-seat constituencies and 180 proportional representation seats, the Diet was roughly headed toward a long-sought-after two-party system, seen as a way to end the decades-long rule by the LDP, which routinely held a majority and faced small parties that only knew how to voice opposition, not demonstrate leadership.
But after the DPJ came to power in 2009, it too ended up disappointing the public by exposing its inability to lead and breaking most of its campaign promises.
“New parties are going to end up paying for choosing the easy way out by merging first without smoothing out their differences,” said Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University. “After the election, these conflicts will surface and tear them apart, just like they did the DPJ.”
The current situation bears similarities to what happened in 1993, when various new parties were formed in an attempt to oust the LDP, which became vulnerable after its vice president, Shin Kanemaru, was forced to resign as a lawmaker for accepting ¥500 million in bribes from parcel-delivery firm Sagawa Kyubin.
Among the new parties was New Party Sakigake, headed by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Masayoshi Takemura, and Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party) led by Ichiro Ozawa, who would later become president of the DPJ. After forming Japan New Party the year before, Morihiro Hosokawa became prime minister, leading a coalition that briefly interrupted decades of LDP rule.
None of these parties still exists.
But in the 1993 Lower House election, most of the voters the new parties appealed to didn’t abandon the LDP but instead snubbed its biggest rival, the Japan Socialist Party, which lost nearly half its seats.
Norihiko Narita, Hosokawa’s secretary at the time and now a political science professor at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, believes voting will follow a similar pattern this time, with Nippon Ishin and Nippon Mirai winning over disaffected DPJ supporters while the LDP hangs on to special interests who benefit from old-fashioned pork-barreling.
“The difference between 1993 and this time is that the theme was simple and clear — it was about political reform,” said Narita. “Many parties emerged then too, but the battle line was obvious. It was a fight between the old guard and the reformists.”
Subsequent elections were more or less framed the same way.
Under the banner of postal reform, popular LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi carried the day in 2005 as a maverick reformer. Not until 2009 could the DPJ end the LDP’s grip on power.
The political world “succeeded in turning the elections into a single-issue battle. But this time, the issues are multidimensional and very complex and it will be difficult for the voters to choose,” Narita said.
Even those opposed to nuclear power, for example, may hesitate to vote for a new party taking that position for fear it is ill-equipped to tackle economic problems. Not only are key issues complexly intertwined, the pledges of the 12 parties in the running are viewed by many voters as mere window dressing.
Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First), recently formed by Ozawa, who was instrumental in the brief deposition of the LDP in 1993, and his followers, who quit the DPJ this summer in revolt against the sales tax hike, was not expected to do well in the upcoming election because many in its ranks were first-term lawmakers with weak footholds in their constituencies.
In a bid to avoid the disaster, the party allied with Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada’s Nippon Mirai, whose antinuclear stance has broad appeal.
“Ozawa’s philosophy is all about numbers, and policies are only a political tool to gain government power,” Narita said. “And right now, the strongest issue to rally around is the no-nuclear policy.”
Noda’s sudden dissolution of the lower chamber touched off a scramble to field candidates that has resulted in incongruous party platforms.
“There is so much uncertainty over the candidates of the parties and their policies, and it is difficult for voters to form an image or opinion of what they are actually seeing,” Waseda University’s Tanifuji said.
Still suffering growing pains, Nippon Ishin and Nippon Mirai have flip-flopped on major issues, including nuclear energy policy.
Formed only last week, most of Nippon Mirai’s campaign pledges were adopted wholesale from Ozawa, including the proposed annual handouts for young children of ¥312,000.
Given the importance of this election for setting a new course for the nation, the parties involved had the responsibility to thoroughly discuss and organize their policies, but this has not happened, Tanifuji said. Their inconsistent policies will haunt Nippon Ishin and Nippon Mirai, he added.
“All I’ve seen since the dissolution of the Lower House are meaningless political performances and paper-thin policy discussions. Rather than solving the current problems, this election is just going to carry them over,” he said.