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The Japanese Communist Party, at the Sept. 19 general meeting of the Central Committee, proposed scrapping the preamble to the party charter that sets out basic principles for its activities and organization. The preamble contains words symbolic of the Communist Party, such as “socialist revolution,” “class struggle” and “vanguard.”

The proposal is expected to be approved at the JCP congress in November. It is unclear, however, whether the party’s platform — which states its basic policies and goals — will also be rewritten in line with the charter revision.

The proposed revision seems long overdue. What prompted the party to take the plunge is probably its defeat in the June general elections. JCP Chairman Tetsuzo Fuwa and other party bigwigs blamed the rout on an anticommunist smear campaign. The truth is that the JCP was unable to attract the unaffiliated voters who make up one-half of eligible voters. Consideration of this fact must have led to the decision to delete the outdated preamble. It seems the JCP wants to play a role in the power change that seems likely in the near future. If so, it will also have to change its platform drastically.

What happened in Italian politics before 1994 provides food for thought. Elections there were held under the proportional-representation system, which enabled a party gaining, say, 2 percent of the popular vote to take 2 percent of the seats at stake. The Republican Party, a minor party nicknamed the Partito di Opinione, took a modest role in government and in public opinion. After 1994, however, Italy’s political world became polarized between right and left when a new election system centering on single-seat districts (similar to Japan’s current system) was introduced. The Republican Party disappeared amid a wave of political realignments.

It is possible that the JCP wants to play the role of gadfly, as the Republican Party did. If so, that is wishful thinking given present circumstances. This is because the single-seat system does not allow for the existence of such “opinion parties.” In the latest elections, the JCP managed to win 20 seats under the PR system, which accounts for 37 percent of the Lower House, compared with 25 percent in Italy. But a party with just 20 seats cannot possibly play the role of gadfly. The best way for a party to exercise influence is to take part in the change of government.

The JCP has already indicated its willingness to play a part in creating a new government. For instance, in the Upper House election of the prime minister following the last elections it voted for Naoto Kan, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group. That was a timid and halfhearted move, however. The Communists say they are looking for a “better government” that is not led by the Liberal Democratic Party. One can only guess what that means.

The LDP as it stands looks like an elephant about to fall. In next summer’s Upper House elections, the three coalition parties — the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — will likely lose their majority. And sometime in the next three years they will face Lower House elections.

If, in the next general elections, the coalition parties lose their majority, then non-LDP forces might ask for Communist cooperation. But if the DPJ were to team up with the JCP now, they would lose many votes. DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama says the JCP “cannot be a partner unless it changes its platform.” If the JCP is looking for a “better government,” it has no choice but to choose a DPJ-centered government.

Italy’s Communists never took power during the Cold War. The Christian Democrats formed a ruling coalition that excluded the Communists, the second-largest party, because of popular fears about a communist government. In the 1970s the Communists supported the Christian Democrats outside the Cabinet under a policy of “historic compromise.” In 1979, they abandoned Marxism-Leninism. And in 1989, in an effort to dispel popular fears about the Communist Party, they abolished the principle of “democratic centrism.”

Democratic centrism is the organizing principle of all Communist parties. The JCP charter says: “The party’s decisions must be implemented unconditionally. Individuals must obey their respective groups; minorities must obey the majority; lower-ranking members must obey higher-ranking members; and party chapters across the country must obey the party congress and the Central Committee.”

In other words, democratic centrism is the organizing principle of the “vanguard party.” Under this principle the JCP has maintained ironclad unity and strict discipline. The word “vanguard” is to be deleted, but the party says “democratic centrism” will be retained in one way or another.

The JCP’s passive stance is a far cry from the bold action taken by the Italian Communists in 1989 when they abandoned “democratic centrism.” In 1990, they renamed themselves the Democratic Party of the Left, and in the 1994 elections, the first to be held under the reformed electoral system, they played a central role in bringing Italy’s leftist parties together. In the 1996 elections, the Democratic Party of the Left led its center-left “Olive Tree” coalition to victory.

In Japan, in the first elections held under the single-seat system in 1996, Kan and other opposition leaders tried the “Olive Tree” formula. But the attempt failed, perhaps due to the JCP’s rigid stance. The party gives Marxism-Leninism a different name — “scientific socialism” — but the fact remains that it is a Marxist-Leninist party.

The JCP has struck out certain terms of hidebound ideology from its charter before, but essentially it has remained a fossilized party paralyzed by the legacy of the dyed-in-the wool Communist Kenji Miyamoto. The Italian Communists were able to transform themselves into a “popular party” because they gave up democratic centrism. By contrast, the kind of change the JCP is trying to make is phony.

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