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Monday’s dissolution of the Lower House for a snap election on Sept. 11 has focused attention on the possibility that the coming election will usher in a viable two-party system. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out. A divisive development within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party could help the Democratic Party of Japan, the No. 1 opposition party, gain enough strength in the Lower House to claim power.

Even a failure to win a clear majority would not necessarily doom the DPJ. If it secures a large enough plurality to allow it to take power in alliance with a smaller party, that would also mark the beginning of a two-party system in Japan. The split in the LDP that has resulted from intraparty struggles over the postal-service privatization bills will most likely weaken the party in the election. But the damage is not sufficient to deal a fatal blow. It seems certain that the LDP will be strong enough to assume power in coalition with the New Komeito.

All this indicates that the Sept. 11 election could create a situation in which two parties or two alliances of parties are almost equally matched in strength. In this sense, the coming election could lay the groundwork for a solid two-party system. Japanese voters have good reasons for such expectations. Japan’s representative democracy has come a long way since women were enfranchised in 1945, however, a functioning two-party system has yet to emerge.

The postwar Constitution — which states that the Emperor is the “symbol of the state” and that sovereign power rests with the people — laid the legal groundwork for the democratic development of the political system. Electoral zoning has played a large role in shaping the political landscape. A large-constituency system was used only once, in the 1946 Lower House election. The prewar system of medium-size districts, with three to five seats each, was reinstated in the 1947 election and remained in use for nearly half a century until the 1996 election, in which the current single-seat district/proportional representation formula was introduced.

The medium-seat constituency system worked largely to the advantage of major parties. The so-called 1955 regime, which polarized the political world between the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party from 1955 to 1993, would not have developed without midsize districts, which favored the two largest parties.

The LDP-JSP setup, however, represented a “one-and-a-half party system,” not a two-party system, because the LDP monopolized power all those years, with the JSP in permanent opposition. The LDP’s one-party rule ended in 1993 when its internal rivalries and subsequent split prompted the reform-minded Mr. Morihiro Hosokawa to establish a non-LDP coalition government.

The Hosokawa administration, however, collapsed in less than a year. The LDP returned to power by assembling a new coalition that included, surprisingly, members from the defunct JSP. The LDP has since remained in power, changing only its partners. Thus the Liberal Democrats have ruled the country for half a century since 1955, except for a brief period in the 1990s.

To be sure, the LDP’s continued reign has created a certain political stability. But its monopoly on power has also spawned political stagnation, rigidity and corruption. The absence of a two-party system, one in which power alternates between two major parties, is symbolic of the negative legacies of postwar politics that have sapped flexibility from the nation’s international diplomacy and deterred domestic efforts for structural reform.

The silver lining is that a two-party era (not system) has dawned between the LDP and the DPJ of Japan, the largest opposition party, thanks to the three Lower House elections held since 1996 under the single-seat/proportional representation system. Unlike the rigid 1955 regime, the LDP-DPJ rivalry holds promise of developing into a two-party system.

In fact, the DPJ has increased its presence as a party with the potential to take the helm. Some Liberal Democrats have taken this development seriously, saying: “If postal privatization bills were voted down, Prime Minister Koizumi would dissolve the Lower House and call a snap general election. If that happens, the political world would be thrown into great confusion, and the LDP would be reduced to an opposition party.”

Their fearful prediction is fast becoming a reality. Certainly, a government change is bound to create some political tension. A power transfer can cause temporary confusion. But government without a real change of power can lose political transparency and become plagued by corruption. Only a full-fledged two-party system can assure a sound and mature democracy.

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