The opposition camp in Japanese politics has made a series of blunders in recent weeks, including a fund scandal that led to the resignation of Yoshimi Watanabe as leader of Your Party.
Having moved to a university in Tokyo this month, I have had more opportunities to meet with opposition lawmakers, mainly those from the Democratic Party of Japan. Such meetings often leave me with disappointment over the current state of Japanese politics, rather than with hope for new developments.
DPJ chief Banri Kaieda’s primary goal appears to be avoiding a split of the largest opposition party — so much so that in making decisions on the party’s policies on important matters on which opinions of its members might be divided he is ready to compromise in favor of unity among party members.
He thus is using up all his energy in internal coordination. No wonder that he has no power left to lead an offensive against forces outside his party.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cronies flying high with their anachronistic sense of mission doesn’t do any good for Japanese politics. They are only pursing — in childish ways — the beliefs that they have long advocated.
Their logic may be naive but can be understood. In contrast, what the opposition parties — which haven’t taken any clear stand against the government and the ruling parties — are thinking is hard to understand or explain.
An opinion survey carried in the April 7 issue of Asahi Shimbun showed that an increasing number of people, and now a majority of voters, oppose Abe’s quest to lift the ban on Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense and to abolish the principles that have banned weapons exports by Japan.
The gap is expanding between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s adventurism concerning the constitutional revisions and security issues, on one hand, and an increasingly cautious public opinion toward changing Japan’s pacifist principles, on the other.
Yet the approval rating for Abe’s Cabinet in the same poll remained high — in the 50 percent range. It is undeniable that people support the Abe administration despite the gap between his policy agenda and what the voters want.
One factor is that people have no other viable alternative to support even if they are wary or critical of the current administration. That is why support for the Abe administration or his Liberal Democratic Party is not dropping.
Under such circumstances, what would be rational options for the other parties to take?
It might make sense for Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party to position themselves to the right of the LDP.
Cooperating with the LDP to justify lifting the ban on the exercise of the right to collective self-defense is consistent with the ideals of these parties and with their desire to take a quick bite of the fruit of power by taking the place of New Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition.
If the DPJ followed these parties and positioned itself to the right of the LDP, the multiparty system in Japanese politics would effectively come to an end. For the DPJ to remain a meaningful political party, it has no choice other than to put itself to the left of the LDP and oppose the Abe administration’s attempt to revise the Constitution.
That would also provide a meaningful alternative for many voters who are wary of the Abe administration, which is rushing at breakneck pace toward constitutional revision.
Political reforms initiated two decades ago were supposed to introduce healthy and active competition to Japanese politics. In reality, the single-seat constituency system does not automatically result in competition between two major forces. Today, when the LDP’s dominance in the Diet dwarfs all other parties, competition has heated up not between the ruling and opposition camps in the quest for power but among opposition parties seeking to ally themselves with the ruling camp.
Competition within each party — particularly the LDP — has disappeared. A traditional mechanism in the LDP in which the party leader was constantly kept in check by rival forces competing for power no longer works.
Such in-house rivalry is more prevalent in the opposition DPJ, whose lawmakers appear to have given up hope of the party regaining power and are interested more in competing for the party’s helm than in uniting themselves to challenge the LDP.
The most basic driving force in the world of politics is supposed to be the quest for power. Competition should enable political leaders and their policies to become refined, thus giving people alternatives to choose from.
In today’s Japan, political competition is being pursued in a wrong direction and fostering political stagnation. To break the impasse, lawmakers in each party must speak up and act — taking risks as individual politicians.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.