The trendy suburb of Kichijoji, often ranked as one of Tokyo’s most desirable places to live, seems like it should be an easy win for Japan’s main left-leaning opposition party in Sunday’s general election.
The heavily populated area had been a part of a stronghold district for the predecessor of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, its relatively youthful population far removed from the rural regions that have long backed the more conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Moreover, the CDP’s candidate is Naoto Kan, a former prime minister with lots of name recognition.
But polls show Kan, 75, locked in a tight race with the LDP’s Akihisa Nagashima, 59, a newcomer to the district known for his focus on security policy. And voters are clear about why: They have bad memories of when the opposition last ran the country nearly a decade ago, a three-year span that saw three different leaders and a devastating earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the northeast coastline.
“It’s difficult when the opposition becomes the largest party,” Hidefumi Asai, 62, said Wednesday while heading to his job as a building janitor. “The LDP has been doing it for a long time, and they have more of a sense of stability.”
While most citizens may not love the party that has run Japan for all but four of the past 66 years, they view the alternative as worse. To many people in Tokyo’s No. 18 district, which contains Kichijoji, and across Japan, the LDP offers a predictable foreign policy tied to the U.S. alliance, a centrist economic platform and general competence in governing the country — seen by many as something the opposition party lacks.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — the predecessor to the CDP — last held power in 2012, when its government collapsed following policy U-turns and a failure to bring changes promised to voters who put them in power three years earlier. The longest run in office for a party other than the LDP in Japan’s post-World War II democracy lasted 39 months, and there are no signs it will be repeated soon.
“They had their rough three years in power and the bar to convince the public they can be trusted with power again is especially high,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “After 2012, they were back at square one, and the past decade hasn’t exactly been moving in the right direction.”
While polls indicate only about 30% of voters support the LDP in their choice for proportional representation, reports say the party and its junior coalition partner Komeito are poised to keep their majority after Sunday’s election due to their powerful nationwide machines to turn out the vote, especially in rural districts. The opposition may flip a few seats in urban areas and extend margins in strongholds, but few expect a return to power.
The close fight comes as coronavirus cases dwindle to levels not seen since last year, easing the discontent with the ruling coalition that flared over the summer and eventually prompted former leader Yoshihide Suga to resign. But it’s also a sign of the opposition’s persistent failure to forge a viable alternative.
In its election campaign, the LDP has embraced policies previously floated by the opposition, including plans to reduce income disparities. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took over last month, has made the battle against inequality a central pillar in the party’s campaign, telling voters it can build a “new capitalism” that does a better job distributing the fruits of economic growth.
Kan has sought to convince voters not to buy the LDP’s newfound concern for the downtrodden.
“A few people are extremely wealthy and a lot of people are in poverty,” Kan told voters in an online debate. “Should we have the LDP try again to do something it hasn’t been able to do, or should we have a change of administration? That’s the biggest point of this election.”
His rival, Nagashima, has also emphasized the opposition’s previous criticism of Japan’s alliance with the U.S., seen by successive governments as key to keeping it safe in a region where three of its neighbors have nuclear arms.
“I think you all sense the harsh international environment surrounding Japan,” Nagashima said in a speech outside Kichijoji Station, reeling off a list of concerns about China, North Korea and Russia. “In this situation, can we say the Self-Defense Forces are unconstitutional or debate whether we need our security treaty with the U.S.?”
Kan, a former patent lawyer, was a symbol of the opposition’s rise to power. He became a hero in the 1990s, when he exposed a health ministry cover-up over tainted blood products that left hemophiliacs infected with HIV. Kan then became one of the most prominent members of the DPJ, which built momentum by attacking corruption until it scored a historic election victory over the LDP in 2009.
Kan served as prime minister for a year between 2010 and 2011, which coincided with the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear power plant disaster. In the 2012 election, with his party tarnished, he lost the district to the LDP for the first time in 16 years and only gained a Diet seat through proportional representation.
The party has struggled to shake that image of incompetence ever since: A poll published by the Asahi Shimbun on Oct. 20 found 58% of respondents said the CDP wasn’t capable of running the government.
That doesn’t necessarily mean voters are happy. A Pew survey earlier this year found Japanese people were among the least satisfied of wealthy nations with the way democracy is working, and more than 72% of respondents wanted economic reform.
“Neither of them has a good image,” said a 23-year-old engineer who gave his name only as Yamazaki as he emerged from a shopping center. He said the CDP failed to show a clear direction, while the LDP was too split between its factions.
“I’m interested, even though many people my age aren’t, but I can’t think who to vote for,” he said.
One thing the opposition has done this time around is cooperate. The CDP built a left-leaning alliance with three other parties, including the Japanese Communist Party, that will field a unified candidate against the LDP in more than 200 of the country’s 289 constituencies. While that may avoid splitting the opposition vote, it could also put off a portion of the electorate, as the JCP have called for scrapping Japan’s security treaty with the U.S.
Mieko Nakabayashi, a former opposition lawmaker who is now a professor in the school of social sciences at Waseda University, said it could take another decade before the CDP returns to power.
“It is very difficult to convince the Japanese public that the opposition party is reliable,” Nakabayashi said. “They need new leaders with new ideas.”
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