LDP struggling in vain to rebuild

Stuck in a rut with no ideology

by Alex Martin

Taking the podium last month at the Liberal Democratic Party’s first convention since its fall from power at the hands of voters last summer, Katsuya Nomura, former manager of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball team, had a few words of advice for the LDP.

“Victory can come unexpectedly, but when you lose, there’s always a good reason,” the legendary skipper and catcher said. “Never forget that when you’re at the top, there’s always those looking to pull you down.”

Nomura’s advice must have hit a sour note for the political behemoth that ruled Japan for more than half a century but was ousted by a public anxious over the future and fed up with a party dogged by scandals and internal disarray.

Experts agree that much time and effort will be required for the fallen giant to stage a comeback as it strains to redefine itself in opposition mode, and with its connections to the nation’s powerful institutions suddenly cut off.

Jun Saito, an associate professor of political science at Yale University, said the LDP’s long dominance made it a party of perverse accountability, where the voters, rather than the party, were held accountable by showing their loyalty to the party.

“The LDP wielded a divide and conquer strategy toward its supporters,” Saito said.

“Instead of buying off voters by actually providing them with benefits, the party retained its support by (implied) threats of voiding entitled benefits,” Saito said, adding this eventually led to a loss of democratic accountability at the national level and a general disenchantment among supporters that finally brought on a regime change.

The LDP ruled like a political machine with a tight backstage network of links with the corporate sector and national bureaucracy.

That system, despite being prone to corruption, was credited with helping Japan’s postwar economic growth and the creation of a stable middle class.

But with the burst of the bubble economy in the early 1990s and the end of lifetime employment, a widening income gap and an aging population, the LDP found itself in a hole, unable to adapt to the changing times.

The LDP over the last two decades gradually lost its grip over organized voters with vested interests, such as construction companies and rice farmers, as economic growth slowed and the people’s needs and desires diversified.

In the book “2009 — Reason’s Behind the Regime Change,” Aiji Tanaka, a political science professor at Waseda University, pointed out this was also evident in how the increasing number of independent voters, having no fixed party affiliation and a proclivity to sudden changes in voting patterns, were key in both the LDP’s win in the 2005 Lower House election and the DPJ’s landslide victory last August.

Tanaka wrote that despite the LDP’s eroding support base, it was able to maintain a Lower House majority for a long time because of a general decline in voter turnout, which magnified the value of the LDP’s organized votes, and because of the party’s alliance with New Komeito.

“But this also indicated that the LDP’s odds of winning declined substantially once voter turnout increased and unorganized voters began turning out in droves to polling stations,” he wrote, concluding the LDP was destined to lose control of the all-important Lower House sooner or later.

A declining voter turnout notwithstanding, the LDP’s 2005 poll win was unique in that its leader, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, was immensely popular with voters, as were his reforms, charisma and efforts to oust party elements who opposed him. Voter disenchantment set in after he departed and three LDP successors replaced him without a popular mandate and worked to undo many of his reforms, and doing so as the economy tanked.

Saito said now that the LDP is in the opposition, the party — which never retained any concrete ideology — will need to redefine what it stands for.

The LDP’s new platform emphasizes the importance of being a conservative party “constantly striving for improvement,” but what this exactly means remains unclear.

“If it aspires to be a conservative party, (members) will need to clarify what they stand for and who they represent,” Saito said, adding that ” ‘conservatism’ for the LDP had little to do with political ideology, but more about ‘conserving’ its traditional support base.”

However, with its funds drying up and support among voters still in the tank, the party’s future appears anything but promising.

The number of party members shrunk to 1.05 million in 2008 from a peak of 5.47 million in 1991, and its recent fall from power has accelerated this trend, hurting the wallets of prefectural LDP chapters whose income partially depends on the ¥4,000 annual membership fee.

The amount of political subsidies from the government has also suffered a cut with the LDP’s loss of more than 170 Lower House seats last summer. It is estimated the party will receive roughly ¥10.3 billion this year, down ¥3.6 billion from 2009.

And even though the current administration is getting rocked by money scandals involving Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Democratic Party of Japan kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, public support for the LDP isn’t improving.

A media poll in late January showed support for the DPJ at 30 percent, down 5 percentage points from a month earlier, but the LDP’s support remained mired an anemic 16 percent. The people jumping off the DPJ bandwagon aren’t finding an attractive alternative in the LDP.

But what might be hurting the LDP most is the simple fact that it is now in the opposition.

Organizations such as the Japan Dentists Federation and the National Land Improvement Federation, traditional LDP vote-gathering machines, have already begun to shift their allegiance to secure money from the Hatoyama administration.

In the financial world, Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), was notably absent from the LDP convention, arousing speculation the pre-eminent business lobby may be trying to distance itself from the LDP.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said that in these hard economic times it is only natural for organizations to concentrate their support on the ruling party.

“The incentive to support an opposition party is notably decreasing,” Nakano said.

Now that it was out of power and no longer able to rely on support from former coalition partner New Komeito, experts agree the LDP’s prospects for the Upper House election this summer are grim.

New Komeito’s newly elected chief, Natsuo Yamaguchi, has clearly indicated his main focus is on rebuilding his party — which suffered a loss of 10 seats in the last general election — instead of pursuing continued ties with the LDP.

There may also be good reason to believe that New Komeito, backed by Japan’s largest lay-Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, may want to deepen its ties with the DPJ.

Saito of Yale University said New Komeito’s losses were due in no small measure to its alliance with the LDP.

“The policies implemented by the LDP-New Komeito coalition were not consistent with the economic interests of the party — especially the Soka Gakkai members, most of whom belong to the lower income bracket,” Saito said, adding that the coalition’s proactive foreign policy also betrayed New Komeito supporters’ expectations of it being a pacifist party.

New Komeito also supports granting permanent resident foreigners with the right to vote in local-level elections, a policy the DPJ supports but the LDP is against.

Saito said New Komeito may look at the DPJ as a potential coalition partner unless it calculates that siding with the LDP would be more beneficial.

But heading into the Upper House election, the LDP’s policy failures may ironically be the primary source of the DPJ’s problems.

“The government deficit and the hilariously big outstanding debts are constraining the DPJ’s capability to deliver the policy they promised to the voters,” Saito said.

“If the DPJ fails to win the election, the single most important contributing factor would be the past policy blunders by the LDP.”

Nakano of Sophia University said the worst case scenario in the election could be if both the DPJ and LDP lose seats while small independent parties like Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party gain seats riding a reform message.

“In either case, the LDP is not in a situation to go on the offensive,” Nakano said. “The issue is how well they can hold out.”