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Democratic Party struggles for relevance in face of LDP-Komeito juggernaut

by

Staff Writer

It would be an understatement to say the Democratic Party, Japan’s biggest opposition party, is struggling.

The DP has recently seen an exodus of 13 official candidates in the run-up to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. In a further blow, one influential member has quit the party’s leadership and another has left the party itself.

The leading opposition party’s support rate remains abysmally low at 6.7 percent, according to the latest NHK opinion poll.

“The situation is hopeless,” Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a political science professor at Toyo University, said. “I’d never expected the party to sink this low.”

Experts say the factors behind the DP’s decline range from the lack of a clear identity to the tendency to focus on picking holes in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies and lingering public disenchantment with its botched first stint in power from 2009 to 2012.

The DP’s dwindling clout has allowed Abe to consolidate power to a degree of strength and longevity rarely seen in post-war history.

The DP has made attempts to recapture its luster.

The party updated its name in March last year from Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) to Minshinto (Democratic Party) after a much-hyped merger with smaller opposition party Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party). It then elected Renho, a former swimsuit model and TV anchorwoman who only goes by one name, as president in hope that her “freshness” would rejuvenate the party’s tattered image.

These tactics backfired, according to Yakushiji.

“All they did is spruce up the exterior. But the interior remains the same. That’s a very shallow way to respond to voters’ expectations,” Yakushiji said.

In announcing his decision to leave the party earlier this month, conservative lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima pointed to what he said was an endemic flaw in the party’s leadership.

“Under the pretext of ‘intraparty governance,’ we were forced to scream an ‘anti-Abe’ slogan and oppose everything, including the consumption tax hike, which we used to promote and tolerate,” Nagashima told a news conference.

“There was never any discussion or constructive proposal. Or no room to compromise and coordinate with the ruling camp. As lawmakers, we’re supposed to unify public opinion, but I couldn’t help but think we were just widening a divide in the public,” he said.

Few have expressed more excruciating responsibility for the party’s downfall than veteran Seiji Maehara.

Maehara, who held several ministerial portfolios while the DPJ was in power, calls himself “a war criminal,” a self-flagellating reference to his part in steering the DPJ onto a disastrous political path.

“I believe many members of the public still remain deeply disappointed in and angry with how we utterly failed to live up to their expectations while we were in power,” Maehara said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. The DPJ swept into power in 2009 on optimism the party would fulfill its promises to curtail public works projects, better manage the pension system and mete out child-rearing allowances.

“We need a clear vision as to what kind of society we should pursue, and present it as a counterweight to the ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito, in order to regain power.

“It’s imperative that we soon become an alternative to Prime Minister Abe’s ruling party, which has grown increasingly undisciplined due to its unopposed status,” Maehara said, referring to the gaffes and scandals emerging from the junior ranks of the LDP.

Enter Keio University professor Eisaku Ide, who advises a DP policy body spearheaded by Maehara and helps craft economic policies he hopes can provide an alternative to the growth-driven model envisioned by Abenomics — the set of radical monetary easing, fiscal spending and structural reform vows aimed at raising Japan’s growth potential.

Ide’s solution is to transform the country into an “all-for-all” society where cheaper access to education, medicine, and nursing care and welfare will be guaranteed through a heavier levy.

In 2013, the national burden rate — which calculates total tax burden plus social security insurance premiums as a ratio of national income — stood at 41.6 percent in Japan, versus 46.5 percent in the United Kingdom, 52.6 percent in Germany and 67.6 percent in France, according to Finance Ministry statistics.

Ide said an increase to somewhere between the U.K. and Germany would drastically increase the revenue available to the government.

That would require the government to raise the consumption tax to about 15 percent from the current 8 percent, which would generate nearly ¥20 trillion in revenue a year, according to Ide’s estimates.

If much of that revenue is injected into the public health insurance and nursing care  systems, as well as education, it would greatly ease public anxiety over the future, Ide said.

“Under my model, we all pay higher taxes, which will become our common asset and allow us all to live in security even if our individual savings may be not that much,” he said.

“The bottom line is to rid people of uncertainty over their future,” he said.

In contrast, Abenomics, Ide said, seeks to address the public’s anxiety by promoting what he calls the “self-responsibility” model — in which the economy is manipulated to prod people into amassing enough wealth to take care of themselves after retirement.

Ide, however, calls this prospect nearly hopeless. He said Japan’s potential growth rate is actually estimated at less than 1 percent by both the Bank of Japan and the Cabinet Office.

Like Abenomics, the DP’s leadership is heavily emphasizing economic stimulus while calling for increased investment in public services with an eye to helping children and women, in particular.

“Buoyed by the Olympics boom, Abenomics is going all out in increasing public works projects and forging ahead with lavish spending together with the BOJ. Does the DP seriously think it can beat that by investing in kids?” Ide said.

The DP “can’t be an alternative as long as they try to compete on economic growth.”

Maehara said his policy body will issue an interim report to Renho based on Ide’s proposal before the Diet closes in mid-June. But it remains unclear whether the DP’s leaders will accept Ide’s proposed policy shift.

“There are bound to be some lawmakers within the DP who will oppose such a tax hike because they’re afraid of the public backlash,” Toyo University professor Yakushiji said.

“A hodgepodge of different groups within the party have put forward their own proposals, but rarely do they tackle the pain of reaching out to other groups and winning their approval. It’s time they became more professional and stopped discussing policy as a hobby.”