Sunday’s election for the Lower House stands out as abnormal, but not because of its abruptness. Many surprise elections have been held before. On March 14, 1953, for instance, then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who was president of the Liberal Party, dissolved the Lower House following the passage of a no-confidence motion submitted against his administration by the opposition in protest of his “bakayaro!”(idiot!) remark to an opposition questioner.

The approval of the motion, despite the fact that the Liberal Party held a majority in the Lower House, was the result of a factional power struggle within the ruling party. A rival group headed by Ichiro Hatoyama did not take part in the voting, leaving the party short of the majority required to defeat the motion. Subsequently the group formed its own party, “Hatoyama Liberal Party,” and the next year Hatoyama and his followers created the Democratic Party.

Although the “bakayaro!” dissolution was anything but normal, it has not been unusual in Japan’s postwar politics for a ruling party to enter an election in a divided state.

Koizumi’s view on party leadership and political power

The abnormality of the Sept. 11 election seems to lie in the way that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi looks at his party and political power in general, not in the abruptness of the Lower House dissolution or the internal strife in the ruling party.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which was created in November 1955, has a 50-year history. Koizumi’s tenure as LDP president, in principle, is limited to two, 2-year terms; yet he has one-sidedly expelled many longtime LDP members who oppose his political views solely on the issue of postal-service privatization. He has then fielded his favorite candidates against those LDP opponents in single-seat districts. Basically that is why this election is abnormal.

What Koizumi is trying to do is change a 50-year-old party without changing its constitution and fundamental platform, while he himself openly declares that he has no intention of remaining as LDP president after September 2006.

At its inception in November 1955, the LDP had a three-point platform that called for, among other things, “the promotion of public welfare, the stabilization of civilian life . . . and the completion of a welfare state.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the party includes many proponents of “big government” and the “welfare state.” In fact, the LDP started out as a party consisting mostly of advocates of the welfare state.

Also open to question is Koizumi’s thinking on political power. His view of political power seems to reflect a belief that an LDP president has a legitimate right to expel unilaterally, without following intraparty procedures, any Diet member who disagrees with him on policy.

Traditionally, Japan’s political culture has demanded humility from rulers and magnanimity from the strong — virtues epitomized by the saying: “The rice plants that bear the most crop bows lowest.” This contrasts with the “winner take all” aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture. Koizumi shows none of the restraint toward power that is characteristic of Japanese political culture.

Koizumi’s concept of political power is illustrated by a conversation that took place between him and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori as postal-reform legislation faced possible defeat in the Upper House. Mori, who heads a faction to which Koizumi belongs, is reported to have urged him not to dissolve the Lower House, but Koizumi flatly rejected the request, saying, “As I told you before time and again, I am the prime minister.”

Simply put, Koizumi seems to believe that one who holds power has a right to use it as he likes. This belief is evident in his putting up proreform candidates against all former Liberal Democrats who opposed his postal privatization plan.

During a debate meeting of party heads at the National Press Club, Koizumi was asked whether he, as president of LDP, should have resigned from his premiership to take responsibility for the defeat of the postal bills because he could not control the rebels in his own party. I wonder whether he understood the meaning of the question. If many floating voters are not swinging to the LDP despite public support for his reform initiative, it is probably because they have misgivings about his view of power.

Public opinion changed considerably soon after the dissolution of the Lower House on Aug. 8, but if it does not change as much during the rest of the campaigning, the election outcome may fall short of a big surprise.

Theatrical politics appeal to voters only when popular attention is focused on the big stage so that the drama has a chance to unfold in front of a national audience. In the nation’s 300 single-seat districts, however, such an approach seems all but useless. In 280 single-seat constituencies, the battle in this election is being waged between LDP candidates and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) candidates — not between pro-Koizumi LDP candidates and anti-Koizumi former LDP candidates. Koizumi-style theatrical politics is more effective in more focused settings, such as the Diet, than in general elections.

Two structural trends in Japanese politics

A structural analysis of today’s Japanese politics reveals two major trends. One is the well-known trend toward “bipartization,” or the development of two leading parties.

Japanese politics remained more or less stable under a two-party system of the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) from 1955 to 1993. To be more precise, a period of stability lasted through 1990. The next three years, to 1993, saw the de-alignment of that system.

LDP politics showed signs of a stalemate after the burst of the economic bubble in 1990. The economy had begun to stagnate following the first energy crisis of 1974. The breakup of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 shook the foundations of the ideologically based two-party system involving the LDP and the JSP.

The de-alignment of the two-party system that began in 1990 reached a climax in 1993 when 38 years of LDP rule ended, leading to the inauguration of an eight-party anti-LDP coalition government headed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. The Hosokawa administration introduced a system of single-seat constituencies and a regime of public financing of party activities for all political parties, setting the stage for a re-alignment that would lead to the emergence of a two-party system.

The re-alignment produced a new two-party system between the LDP and the DPJ in the Upper House election of July 2004. This emerging system is likely to take a more solid shape in the Sept. 11 Lower House election. In this sense, the election outcome hinges on how the contests between LDP and DPJ candidates in more than 280 of 300 single-seat districts turn out; the much-ballyhooed duels between LDP rebels and pro-Koizumi “assassins” in 33 districts are less important.

The two-party system of the LDP and the DPJ differs significantly from the LDP-JSP system that started in 1955. One difference is that the new system is no longer defined by the ideological divide between capitalism and socialism that existed under the “1955 regime” of Japanese politics. Now voters feel more free to swing between the LDP and the DPJ without regard to ideological distinctions.

Another difference with the new Japanese two-party system is that a genuine two-party system, one that permits the transfer of power between two major parties, is emerging between the LDP and the DPJ. As such, this system is different from the now-defunct “1 1/2 party system” that precluded the change of power between the LDP and the JSP.

The Liberal Democrats and the Democrats already maintain almost equal levels of voter support in both big cities and rural areas, as shown in six northern Tohoku prefectures. Therefore, even a slight swing in voter attitude can significantly change the election outcome all over Japan. That raises the prospect of a power change between the two parties.

The figures in the table’s third column estimate how the election outcome will change if 1 percent of the electorate switches from the LDP to the DPJ. These figures are based on the situation just before the official start of campaigning on Aug. 30. The expected results are as follows:

The number of LDP winners in single-seat districts will drop from 148 to 135 while DPJ winners will increase from 121 to 134. The total number of winners, including those in the proportional representation segment, will be 193 for the LDP, down from 207, and 207 for the DPJ, up from 193. As a result, the DPJ will become the largest party.

Another structural trend in Japanese politics since 1993 has been the development of the “coalition era,” i.e., the continuation of coalition government amid the progress of bipartization. The reason for this is that it is difficult for any single party to secure a stable absolute majority, making it virtually impossible to form a one-party government. In the background is the complex conflict of interests among the people in this nation’s highly industrialized society.

What is notable about the “coalition era” is that thus far only the LDP has maintained a corresponding strategy and, consequently, has enjoyed a position of political advantage. The LDP has held New Komeito, its coalition partner, firmly in its fold. That is why the DPJ has been unable to take power despite the fact that it enjoys almost as much voter support nationwide as the LDP.

Actually the DPJ gained more votes than the LDP in the party-based proportional representation constituency in the last Lower House election in 2003 and in the 2004 Upper House election. Koizumi says that his wish in this election is to secure a combined Lower House majority for the LDP and New Komeito. The statement demonstrates that the coalition era has had positive effects on the LDP. By contrast, the DPJ advocates the establishment of its one-party government in its manifesto because it has been unable to take power due to its inability to find a suitable coalition partner.

In this sense, the formation of two small parties by LDP defectors — Kokumin Shinto and the New Party Nippon — might create a new situation in Japanese politics. As Ichiro Ozawa, a DPJ leader, says, these parties could enable the DPJ to form a coalition government, depending on the postelection situation.

Unstable political situation ahead?

Koizumi has expelled nearly 40 LDP legislators from the party because of their opposition to the postal-reform bills. This seems to have badly hurt the party’s electoral prospects. With the LDP and the DPJ battling neck and neck, and with pro-Koizumi assassin candidates not doing as well as expected, it will be almost impossible for the LDP to regain the nearly 40 seats it has forsaken.

The table indicates that the LDP and New Komeito combined will win 247 seats — a majority but only a slim one. The number of LDP seats in the table is 207 seats — far short of the 237 seats the LDP won in the previous election.

Even if the LDP-New Komeito coalition maintains a majority in the Lower House, a loss of 30 LDP seats will seriously undermine Koizumi’s leadership within the party. Indeed, his postelection status as LDP president could be challenged even before he is re-elected prime minister.

There will be more than 30 successful anti-Koizumi LDP candidates in the Lower House even after the Sept. 11 election. They will urge Koizumi to resign the LDP presidency before a prime minister is nominated in the Lower House, saying they will abstain from voting in the the nomination. If 30 LDP members abstain from the voting, Koizumi cannot be the winner.

Even if they are not successful in getting Koizumi to resign before the nomination, these anti-Koizumi LDP members will on various occasions join anti-Koizumi moves launched in the future by LDP defectors who have successfully campaigned as independents.

Yoshida’s March 1953 “Bakayaro!” dissolution again provides food for thought. In the election that followed, his Liberal Party lost its majority although it came out on top, and Yoshida barely retained the prime ministership in a runoff vote. But 1 1/2 years later, in December 1954, his Cabinet was forced to resign when faced with a nonconfidence vote. As a result, the post of prime minister went to Hatoyama of the Democratic Party.

Koizumi has gambled big in calling an election through the bare-knuckle exercise of power — a move that goes against some of the long traditions of Japan’s political culture. I am afraid that his bold attempt at change may create an unstable situation in Japanese politics.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.