It took 54 years for the nation’s politics to produce a viable opposition party, and 39 months for it to self-destruct after winning power, splintering prospects for an enduring policy-driven two-party system.
The Democratic Party of Japan lost three-fourths of its seats in the Lower House on Sunday, three years after sweeping the Liberal Democratic Party from a half-century of almost unbroken rule. An LDP-led coalition won a two-thirds majority in the 480-seat chamber.
While the DPJ’s leaders came under fire for their response to the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear calamity, the biggest collapse in public support preceded the crisis. Undermined by a faction boss who later split and took about 50 seats with him, the DPJ flubbed its historic chance at the beginning by pledging to move a U.S. military base off Okinawa, then reneging on it.
“It was a missed opportunity for now to build a true two-party system,” said Ellis Krauss, a professor of Japanese politics at the University of California, San Diego. “Japan’s major challenges, including an aging society and a huge debt problem, would be manageable if only the political system weren’t so dysfunctional. I’m fairly pessimistic the political leadership will confront the problems any time soon.”
The DPJ saw its seats reduced to 57 from 230 in the Lower House — the worst showing of any governing party since the end of World War II. Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), led by ex-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, won almost as many seats as the DPJ at 54, making it the third-largest group.
“They talked big but they couldn’t deliver,” said Masatsugu Kitano, a 77-year-old company executive in Tokyo, speaking days before Sunday’s election, referring to the DPJ. “My trust in political parties is basically zero.”
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the DPJ’s third prime minister in as many years, said he would quit as party leader. LDP President Shinzo Abe, in line to reclaim the office he left in 2007, said voters “will be looking carefully at the LDP to see if we fulfill their expectations.”
After governing for all but 10 months since 1955, the LDP was ousted in 2009 by the DPJ, which vowed to curb bureaucrats’ power, cut public works spending and boost child support. Instead, the child payments were cut back and Noda this year pushed through a bill doubling the sales tax to cope with record debt, fulfilling a decade-long push by the Finance Ministry.
Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ’s initial prime minister, entered office pressing a pledge to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Designed to reduce the burden of U.S. military operations on the people of Okinawa, the move backfired when it soured relations with Japan’s top ally, stirring concern in the business community.
Hatoyama later reversed course, inciting criticism from Okinawans who had anticipated the government following through on its commitments. His approval rating sank below 20 percent, from 75 percent, and he stepped down after eight months in office. Naoto Kan, who Sunday failed to hold off an LDP challenge for his own seat in the Diet, took over.
“The biggest reason for the DPJ’s downfall was it went into the election with a manifesto, and said it would carry out those promises,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. “Then of course there was the problem of the Okinawa base, which did in Hatoyama.”
Despite the replacement, Kan’s support for raising the sales tax and the party’s suspension of Ozawa during the faction leader’s trial for campaign-finance violations provoked an internal backlash that hurt the second DPJ prime minister.
Ozawa, who had stepped down as party leader over a funding scandal in May 2009 while remaining head of the biggest faction, publicly opposed Hatoyama, Kan and Noda before finally leaving the DPJ in July over the sales-tax increase.
Kan had his own campaign funding issues, and was answering questions over a foreign contribution in the Diet on March 11, 2011, when a record 9.0 earthquake struck the Tohoku region, spawning monster tsunami that helped cripple the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. About 19,000 people were killed and 160,000 forced to evacuate by the disasters.
While the government pledged ¥19 trillion in rebuilding, and Kan vowed to end the nation’s reliance on nuclear power, the DPJ and LDP quarreled over the response to the disaster, sending support for both parties plummeting.
“The DPJ was a victim of bad timing,” UCSD’s Krauss said. “The Fukushima quake and tsunami was unprecedented in scale. Kan did as well as he could but it wasn’t enough for the public. They expect too much in too short a time.”
With the country’s economy contracting and social welfare costs rising in the rapidly aging society, Abe will be under pressure to deliver the kind of results he couldn’t last time. The DPJ remains the biggest party in the Upper House, and could still rebound in elections for the chamber in July should the LDP prove a disappointment again.
Steven Reed, a political scientist at Chuo University, points out that the DPJ’s 2009 landslide followed a decisive defeat four years before.
“People said in 2005 that the DPJ would never recover and after 2009 that the LDP could never recover,” Reed said. “I think quite the reverse.”
At the same time, the DPJ’s failure, the return of the LDP and the proliferation of other parties suggests it will take some time before a stable two-party system is in place. Hokkaido University political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi, who three years ago said that “Japan has at last truly become a democracy,” is now less sanguine.
“I was overly optimistic,” Yamaguchi said. “Japanese politics has gone back to square one. It’s pathetic.”