The Liberal Democratic Party had dubbed Sunday’s election a “battle in mourning,” in hopes that the untimely death of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi would get out the “sympathy vote.” As it turned out, the LDP and its coalition partners suffered a major set- back, contrary to the wishes of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who took office less than two months ago.
In my view, the primary reason for the setback is the economy, which has remained in the doldrums ever since the asset-price bubble burst in 1990. The government has poured tens of trillions of yen into public-works projects over the past decade, but the economy is still struggling to recover. In the meantime, the combined long-term debt of the central and local governments has ballooned from 449 trillion yen to 645 trillion yen. Unemployment has climbed 50 percent from 2.26 million to 3.49 million.
Given this gloomy economic situation, the ruling parties could not possibly have expected to boost their combined strength. In fact, LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, the party’s campaign manager, had made modest predictions, setting the minimum target for the LDP at 229 seats, more than 40 fewer than the 271 it held before the Lower House was dissolved. And he made it clear that if the LDP failed to achieve that target, he would resign to take responsibility.
The LDP reversal may be attributed partly to the series of verbal gaffes made by Mori, including the reference to Japan as a “nation of gods centering on the Emperor” and the campaign remark that he would like uncommitted voters to just “sleep at home” on polling day.
The main reason, however, is a structural one: The decade-long economic recession has shattered confidence in the ability of the LDP-centered government to run the economy. The “high-growth myth” — which had gained wide currency during the period of one-party rule by the LDP — is already a thing of the past.
With the economy going through structural reforms, the LDP is losing its traditional grip on the farming and business constituencies. Particularly in urban districts, the LDP seems to have been reduced, for all practical purposes, to a minor party that can expect to garner only about 30 percent of the vote.
Nevertheless the tripartite ruling coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party has managed to win a stable majority in the 480-seat Lower House. In this sense, it can be said that they have done fairly well. However, this should be seen essentially as the result of their electoral cooperation.
Voter turnout, at 62.5 percent, is 2.9 percent higher that in the last general election of August 1996. Still, it is the second-lowest turnout in the postwar period. The slight increase seems to reflect technical factors, particularly improvements in the absentee-voting system and a two-hour extension of voting hours.
Especially notable about the higher turnout is the fact that the voting rate increased in urban districts, such as Tokyo, Saitama, Kanagawa, Aichi and Shizuoka. This indicates that unaffiliated voters who normally stay home went to the polls this time around. And many of those undecided voters seem to have voted for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. This is probably the major reason why the DPJ made big gains.
Is the election further proof that coalition politics is here to stay in Japan? Or is it a sign that the nation is headed for a two-party system? The answer probably depends on how one looks at the DPJ’s gains. My own view is that coalition politics will continue.
The DPJ’s gains were more or less expected, as were the LDP’s losses. In the previous election, the largest opposition party was not the DPJ, but Shinshinto (New Frontier Party). This is the first time the DPJ has fought a general election as the No. 1 opposition party. So it had been anticipated that many anti-LDP voters would support the DPJ.
As for the opposition parties as a whole, the lesson is that they have been unable to secure a majority despite the fact that the ruling coalition was forced to fight an uphill battle. They had ample ammunition to use against the triumvirate, such as a weak economy, high unemployment and Mori’s fitness to serve as prime minister.
While the coalition parties began preparations for campaign cooperation early on, the opposition parties remained divided, not only on joint campaigning but also on plans to take the reins of government in case they captured a majority. They failed to convince voters that they were determined to seize power. In my opinion, that is why they were unable to create the kind of momentum that had been generated in the Upper House election of two years ago.
While coalition politics is here to stay, it can also be safely said that the DPJ has now solidified its status as the No. 1 opposition party. It can even be said that in future the party will be able to wield greater influence on Japanese politics than the LDP.
Another notable thing about the DPJ is that some of its members who had won in the last election under the proportional-representation system after losing in single-seat districts have made a comeback in their respective districts. These re-elected legislators are relatively young, many of them playing active roles as lawyers, doctors and citizens’ group leaders, for example. These reform-minded politicians, having accumulated parliamentary experience as proportional representation-elected members in the previous Lower House, have proved themselves capable of competing favorably with LDP old guards in single-seat districts.
By contrast, many LDP members are second-generation legislators who count chiefly on the support of interest groups. Once they lose an election and stop dispensing pork to those groups, their chances of returning to the Diet are usually lost for good. This career difference between LDP and DPJ legislators will likely cast a shadow over the future of their respective parties.
The three ruling parties combined have won 271 seats, down 65 from the pre-election strength of 336. Although they have retained a working majority, they continue to suffer from Mori’s image problem. His controversial statements have raised questions about his ability to serve as the nation’s leader. It seems unlikely, therefore, that long-term political stability will be maintained under his coalition administration.
There is no question that Mori will stay at the helm at least until the July G8 summit in Okinawa is over. However, he may find it difficult to keep his job until the Upper House election in July next year. In the meantime, the LDP could be headed for an internal split. Former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato, a likely candidate for LDP president, was tipped during the election campaign as a possible opposition candidate for prime minister. Although Kato himself has ruled out the possibility, something unexpected could happen if the opposition parties decided to nominate him.
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