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Many Japanese want the Democratic Party of Japan to take power in the next general election in the hope that a DPJ victory will usher in a two-party system that puts Japanese politics on a sounder footing. The party’s latest annual convention, however, must have left people wondering whether the DPJ is really determined to replace the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito.

The two-day meeting, which closed Monday in Fukuoka City, set the tone of a DPJ campaign for a Lower House by-election scheduled for April in the Fukuoka No. 2 district. A DPJ victory in this battleground constituency will improve the party’s long-term electoral fortunes as it prepares for a marathon campaign leading up to the next Lower House election.

Most likely the Fukuoka election will be a two-man race between a DPJ candidate and Mr. Taku Yamasaki, the former LDP vice president, who is now serves as an assistant to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Mr. Yamasaki lost his seat in the November 2003 general election. The DPJ winner, however, resigned this year for lying about his educational background.

If the DPJ wins again, that certainly will deal a blow not only to Mr. Yamasaki but also to the Koizumi administration. But the victory would have limited significance in the sense that the party would merely have recouped the loss suffered by its misbehaving member. The most effective electoral strategy for the DPJ would be to expand its strength in rural districts, the LDP’s traditional strongholds, rather than in urban districts such as the Fukuoka No. 2 constituency.

The Fukuoka convention adopted an aggressive action plan to increase party membership and bolster its organization in 2005. The plan calls for, among other things, selecting candidates to run in all 300 single-seat Lower House districts and doubling the number of registered party members and supporters to 200,000. The convention also decided to set up a “strategy committee” for winning the next general election.

All of this is encouraging, but the fact remains that all previous action plans have proven far removed from reality. It still appears that the DPJ as a whole continues to be long on rhetoric and short on substance. Many of its promises may well end up as mere slogans.

But it is also true that political winds are blowing against the LDP as an increasing number of voters turn their backs on the perennial ruling party. Since its debacle in the July 1993 general election, the LDP has gained a majority only once — in the 2001 Upper House election, thanks largely to Mr. Koizumi’s soaring popularity at the time. In July’s Upper House poll, it won only 49 seats, placing second behind the DPJ, which captured 50 seats.

The DPJ’s dramatic gains have led some analysts to predict that the Democrats may win a landslide in the next Lower House election. But their lackluster performance in the Diet following their July triumph indicates that the DPJ has wasted much of its newfound political capital in trying to drive the Koizumi administration into a corner.

In his address to the Fukuoka meeting, Mr. Katsuya Okada, the DPJ president, pointed out: “Many people want to see an end to the LDP administration of Prime Minister Koizumi,” adding that 2005 will be “the year in which to lay the groundwork for a change of government.”

The current political situation suggests that the Lower House probably will be dissolved for a snap general election sometime after September 2006 when Mr. Koizumi’s tenure as LDP president expires. The possibility remains, though, that an election will be called next year if the Lower House is dissolved during the regular Diet session over the government’s plan for privatizing postal services.

To win the coming general election, the DPJ must clear a more fundamental hurdle: simmering internal discord over policy issues, particularly those relating to security policy. If it avoids hard-hitting debates for fear of rocking the boat, the goal of taking the helm — a “historic mission” as Mr. Okada described it — will likely remain as distant as ever. Mr. Okada himself appears at odds with the rest of the party leadership.

A working two-party system — something Japan has not experienced since the end of World War II — is favored by a majority of the Japanese people. Given the seemingly halfhearted way in which the DPJ has been conducting itself in the Diet, however, it seems that the party is unwittingly discouraging this emerging mood for political reform. The Democrats should be as determined to take power as the Liberal Democrats are resolved to keep it.

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