They’re baaaack. After warming the opposition bench for more than three years, the Liberal Democratic Party has returned to power, hungrier and more eager than ever to rule.
True, the LDP has a long history and vast experience as the ruling party. But times have changed and the public has already said “no” to them once. Is the LDP really ready or is Japan just inviting more turmoil?
Following is a look at the LDP’s past, present and current direction:
When was the LDP established and what sort of party is it?
The LDP was formed in November 1955 with the merger of two conservative parties — the Japan Democratic Party and the Liberal Party. This was the beginning of the “1955 system,” where the LDP was pitted against the largest opposition force, the Japan Socialist Party, the predecessor of the current Social Democratic Party.
The two parties went head to head almost on a Cold War footing akin to that of the face-off between the United States and the Soviet Union.
There was a clear ideological divide between the two largest parties, especially since the LDP, from its establishment, had been calling for amending the war-renouncing Constitution.
The LDP’s view is the charter was forced on Japan because it was drafted during the Allied Occupation in 1947. In its 1955 policy platform, the party called for revising it and scrapping the laws enacted during that period “to prepare for the independence” of Japan.
Except for being briefly sidelined in the 1990s and then sharing a Cabinet with the Socialists shortly afterward, the LDP solely ruled Japan almost continuously for more than half a century until its big crash in 2009, when it was ousted by the Democratic Party of Japan in a general election.
Over the years, the LDP has produced many prime ministers, including prominent blue bloods. Among them are Ichiro Hatoyama, whose grandson, Yukio, was the first produced by the DPJ. Other LDP prime ministers included Nobel Peace Prize laureate Eisaku Sato and Shigeru Yoshida, the grandfather of former Prime Minister Taro Aso.
Back at the LDP helm now and set to return as prime minister is Shinzo Abe, who took the post between 2006 and 2007 but quit amid scandals involving his Cabinet, the party’s loss of its Upper House majority in an election, a plunging support rate, criticism over his right-leaning stance and health problems. His grandfather was the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.
How could one party stay in power for so long in a democracy?
Many factors contributed to the LDP’s longevity, including the Cold War, which lasted until the early 1990s. During that time, Japan saw its security alliance with the United States solidified under successive LDP administrations. The nation’s rapid postwar economic growth meanwhile produced little public discontent.
Japan was at peace, people worked and technology was on an upward trajectory under LDP rule. The ideologically different opposition camp’s ability to lead meanwhile remained untested.
Still, government power changed hands over the decades, but not among parties. Instead, the LDP’s rival factions, with their hierarchical and well-funded structures, provided nearly all of the successive leaders.
“All large parties have some sort of internal groups, but the unique characteristic of LDP factions was that several of the large ones functioned like separate political parties,” said Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University. “From recruiting new members and making policy decisions to collecting money and managing elections, factions had all of the aspects of a political party in one set.”
But eventually, public frustration and distrust spread over the LDP’s frequent money scandals, apparent favoritism toward vested interests and rotation of prime ministers picked in lieu of general elections, including Abe and Aso, until voters finally sent the party packing in 2009 and brought in the DPJ.
How has the LDP’s factional politics played out?
Factionalism has shaped the fundamental structure of the LDP since the beginning. Time and time again, lawmakers have formed groups around powerful lawmakers, producing many national leaders, including Kishi, Hayato Ikeda, Kakuei Tanaka and Takeo Fukuda.
The chairmen of the factions had the money and power to control their groups. They also influenced Cabinet appointments, the party’s executive lineup, and made backdoor deals during the presidential elections.
The entire system worked basically because the Lower House had a multiseat constituency system in which several people backed by different factions in the same party ran against each other.
Factional rivalries were so strong they purposely huddled every Thursday at noon so even reporters could not physically cover two different groups simultaneously.
But when the single-seat constituency system was introduced in 1994, the power of factions weakened considerably.
Money also became an issue with the enactment of the party subsidies law, which gave party executives control of cash received from the state. Factions eventually became a symbol of old-style LDP politics and developed a negative image, especially with the public.
Are factions staging a comeback with the LDP’s lopsided win in the December poll?
It certainly looks that way. When the LDP fell into opposition, its membership plummeted, causing factions to shrink and weaken further.
Although they lost most of their power and influence, the factions remained in place during the opposition period, holding their usual Thursday noon meetings.
Among the current factions, the largest is led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura and has been the springboard for many recent prime ministers, including Yoshiro Mori, Junichiro Koizumi, Yasuo Fukuda and Abe. Other factions include those of former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, ex-LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara and Aso. And now, with an additional 176 lawmakers on the way, including original members and newcomers, factions are in full recruitment mode.
The Abe camp has stated it does not plan to heed the recommendations of faction leaders when appointing key positions in the Cabinet.
“The LDP would lose public trust if factions started to regain power,” said close Abe ally Yoshihide Suga, who is expected to be the next chief Cabinet secretary. “We are 100 percent sure that (Abe) would never accept recommendations made by factions.”
But the party is divided. “The party is a public school while factions are like cram schools,” explained an LDP executive who wished to remain anonymous. He said the two structures have fundamentally different roles and that both should be utilized.
Then how are decisions made at the LDP?
For a long time, it was guided by the powerful LDP Policy Research Council. Without the approval of this council and the General Council, government-sponsored bills could not be submitted to the Diet. And the policies to be pursued were strictly controlled by the “iron triangle” made up of lawmakers with vested interests, bureaucrats and the business sector.
But when Koizumi came on the scene, he severed these controls, rallied the troops and pursued his own goals, led by the privatization of the postal service — the government’s cash cow.
Instead of trying to reach a consensus on the issue, he kicked the “postal reform rebels” out of the party and even went as far as appointing “assassin” candidates, including many celebrities, to run against them in the 2005 general election.
The maverick who promised to “destroy” the LDP proved wildly popular with the public and scored a major victory for reform in the 2005 race. That marked the beginning of the end of the old LDP, which declined into a revolving door of once-a-year prime ministers starting with Abe until it got pounded by the DPJ in 2009.
Why did the LDP make it a point to promptly visit Keidanren after its December election win?
The highly influential Keidanren business lobby is a staunch supporter of the LDP, whereas the prolabor DPJ is traditionally backed by the Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).
When the DPJ was in power, it managed to form good relations with Keidanren, especially when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pushed the sales tax hike forward and expressed his interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, a free-trade scheme aimed at eliminating all tariffs among member states. But Keidanren was quick to lash the DPJ for backing the elimination of nuclear power by the 2030s.
Abe, whose party eventually supported Noda’s tax hike bill, meanwhile reassured Keidanren that, although the LDP, too, may seek to lessen Japan’s reliance on atomic power, it would not do away with reactors entirely.
On the other hand, the LDP is reluctant to join the TPP, which is strongly opposed by the farm sector and lawmakers with vested interests.
Is the conservative LDP leaning even further to the right?
Yes. First, it revised its platform in 2010 to specify that it will start anew as a “conservative party.” It also vowed that Japan will make efforts to protect itself while fulfilling its obligations to the world, and noted that it rejects the idea of “one-country pacifism.”
“The new platform has the classic rightwing color. The LDP used to be a catch-all party, collecting members from the far-right to center-left, but now it is so far to the right that it is basically saying even centrists are unnecessary,” Nonaka said. And now, under Abe, the party is more focused than ever on revising the Constitution to establish a national defense force and to change the interpretation of the charter so Japan can engage in collective self-defense.
However, it is still unclear how far Abe will go to the right. For example, he has already backed out of the LDP’s 2012 platform goal of holding a special ceremony Feb. 22 to mark Takeshima Day to underscore Japan’s claim to islets that South Korea now controls and calls Dokdo.
So the big question is, has the LDP changed?
The LDP, naturally, insists it has. But analysts pretty much agree the answer is “no.”
Experts note the LDP did little, if anything, constructive as an opposition force and its sole purpose was focused on how to press the DPJ into holding a general election so it could exploit the DPJ’s shortcomings and look better to voters.
The factions are already re-exerting their power. The fact that Abe was elected president in September with the backing of veteran members from the different factions signals that the leading figures in each still have considerable sway.
The party has meanwhile revived its tax commission, a powerful group that maps out the nation’s taxation regime. And Abe has also called for increasing public works spending despite the snowballing debt, a complete turnaround from the DPJ’s pursuit of fiscal discipline.
“The public reluctantly returned government power back to the LDP this time because of its decades-long experience (as the ruling party), but it won’t be easy. Things could turn for the better, but then again, they might not,” Nonaka said.
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