The Democratic Party of Japan is in the throes of an identity crisis, a fact not lost on delegates meeting for the party’s annual convention Saturday in Tokyo.
The support rate for the DPJ, once considered a viable alternative to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has been dismal for months, and its outlook for the Upper House election in July is bleak.
The DPJ has failed to set its economic policies apart from those of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and its opposition to Abe’s push to amend the pacifist Constitution has failed to win over most voters, political analysts said.
“Security and constitutional issues attract the attention of certain types of voters. But they don’t have much impact on the voting of the general public in an election,” said Jun Iio, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
He said while some people feel so strongly about matters that they will join demonstrations on the streets, security issues do not drive ordinary people into polling booths.
Iio’s view may surprise those who witnessed the thousands-strong anti-Abe street rallies last year protesting the government’s reinterpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution and the enactment of security laws that expand the types of missions Japanese troops can take overseas. But opinion polls and the outcomes of recent elections support Iio’s observation, and many other political analysts agree with him.
For years Abe has been one of the most vocal advocates of amending the Constitution.
Yet Abe’s LDP has won landslide victories in all three national elections since he took the LDP presidency in September 2012, namely the 2012 Lower House election, the 2013 Upper House election and the 2014 Lower House poll.
Polls have shown that in each election, the economy and social welfare issues were voters’ main concerns, not security or constitutional issues.
The DPJ strongly opposed Abe’s move to enact the contentious security laws last summer. The party now hopes to prevent the ruling bloc from winning more than two-thirds of the 242-seat Upper House in the summer election, a prerequisite to initiate a national referendum on constitutional revision.
But the DPJ’s support rate remained largely unchanged last year, fluctuating between 7.7 percent and 10.9 percent in monthly polls by NHK.
This month, it stood at 8.1 percent, compared with 37.5 percent for Abe’s LDP. The figures have left many DPJ lawmakers with a sense of crisis ahead of the Upper House election in July.
Questions of security are simply “not closely connected with people’s livelihoods,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, professor of politics at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. “People are interested more in such issues as the economy and employment.”
DPJ President Katsuya Okada should know this well.
Standing at the podium of the Lower House plenary session Tuesday, Okada devoted most of his speech to economic issues, particularly focusing on poverty and the increasingly apparent disparity in wealth.
“The fundamental difference between my economic policies and those of Prime Minister Abe lies in how we should share (the fruits) of economic growth,” Okada said.
“We believe it’s important to realize a fair distribution and at the same time achieve economic growth, through the tax and social security systems,” he said.
The main component of Abe’s economic policies is an ultra-loose monetary policy, which has weakened the yen and greatly benefited large exporters. It has also enriched wealthy people whose investment portfolios include stocks.
Abe’s economic advisers initially expected that corporate profits and the inflated assets of the rich would trickle down to smaller businesses and the economic middle and lower classes.
But few of these trickle-down effects are being felt, and the frustrations of the middle and working classes are growing. This is why the DPJ is trying to make income redistribution a key election focus.
In his speech, Okada argued that the government should redistribute income to people in financial difficulty through reforms of the tax and social security systems, such as hiking taxes on financial transactions and increasing cash allowances to the poor.
But the DPJ’s proposals are not concrete and the party has yet to describe a bigger picture in which it can work to reduce Japan’s wealth disparity, both Iio and Kawakami said.
Meanwhile, Abe’s administration has started adopting labor policy proposals that the DPJ has long advocated. This has further blurred the differences between the two parties, Iio said.
“In some areas, Abe’s administration is now narrowing the distance with the DPJ. This has made the situation even more difficult” for the largest opposition party, Iio said.
For example, Abe’s administration recently started pressuring corporations to raise wages beyond the demands of their labor unions, because wage stagnation is now considered a major cause of the deflation that has haunted the economy for the past two decades.
Past LDP governments were considered champions of big business. Abe’s drastic policy shift has greatly overshadowed the role of the DPJ, whose main supporter is Rengo, Japan’s largest federation of labor unions.
Abe also now says he is prioritizing measures to boost the low birthrate and cope with the rapidly aging society, including steps to promote gender equality and to help child-raising households.
Again, gender and child care issues are policy areas the DPJ has focused on for years. Last year Okada accused Abe of “copycatting” key policy proposals of the DPJ.
Yet it seems Okada’s accusation has had little impact on the impression voters have of the DPJ and its potential.
Kawakami said voters still vividly remember the major policy blunders a DPJ-led government committed while in power from 2008 to 2012 and do not see it as a viable alternative to the LDP in government, he said.
“The economy now is said to be slowing down and Okada says Abenomics has yet to defeat deflation. But could any administration manage better?” Kawakami said.