The atmosphere in the nation’s political circles appears to have radically changed after the Liberal Democratic Party’s stunning defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. The popular approval ratings of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet continue to decline rapidly, hitting the 30 percent range and then falling further in several media polls taken in mid-July.
A look at the 2016 edition of a cross-national survey called Asia Barometer (asianbarometer.org/survey/meaning-of-democracy) shows an interesting feature of Japanese people’s views on democracy. In a question as to what democracy means to the pollees — in which they were asked to choose their answers from 1) freedom; 2) norms and procedures; 3) social fairness; and 4) good governance — more than 40 percent of Japanese respondents picked good governance, in sharp contrast with pollees in other countries. It is believed that since freedom and norms are being established in Japan, people here consider clean, accurate and efficient governance as the concrete meaning of democracy.
Given the views of Japanese voters on democracy, the current plight of the Abe administration seems quite serious. Allegations that favor was inappropriately provided to Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen, as well as the cover-up and destruction of information by the Finance Ministry and other members of the bureaucracy, have led to public distrust in the administration.
Japanese voters react more sensitively to administrative corruptions and the use of power for private purposes than to the success or failure of policies. The crisis that the administration faces now looks so grave that popular assessment of it will likely not change by merely holding brief Diet sessions to discuss the scandals or reshuffling the Cabinet, which the prime minister reportedly is planning to do in early August.
But even as the Abe administration has suddenly lost steam, the actions of the opposition camp and its supporters remain slow. Even worse, they continue to do things that seem to assist the administration in its plight. The first example is Democratic Party chief Renho’s move to disclose her family registry to dispel questions about her nationality issue. How can the party resort to an action that could please the right-wingers? How can DP members discuss human rights and democracy if they were unaware of the history in which the family registry became a source of discrimination in this country? Renho’s act could set a bad precedent, leaving room for the false idea of “true Japanese” to be used as a weapon to attack political opponents. Instead of picking up on the nationality issue of their own leader, DP members should assess the party’s defeat in the metropolitan assembly election and then move forward by refreshing its policies and beefing up the party’s leadership.
The second example is the turnaround of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) over the government-proposed amendment to the Labor Standards Law to lift legal work-hour regulations on “highly professional” company employees.
Rengo President Rikio Kozu said he is ready to agree under certain conditions to the amendment pursued by the Abe administration — despite the umbrella labor organization’s years of opposition to such an amendment. If the government wants to ram the amendment through the Diet, as it did with the “conspiracy crime” legislation, the opposition camp would be able to run a major campaign against it in the fall Diet session, potentially pushing the Abe administration into yet another tight corner.
But the turnaround in Rengo’s position on the issue will likely have a big impact on the DP, as well as efforts toward a realignment of the opposition camp. The split in the positions of the DP and Rengo — as in their divergent positions on the Yokohama mayoral election this Sunday — may happen on the national politics level as well.
A possible scenario would be for the DP and labor unions under Rengo’s umbrella to be broken up into two forces — one that pursues cooperation with other opposition forces like the Japanese Communist Party and confrontation with the LDP by highlighting such divisive issues as nuclear power and the legalization of casinos, and the other that rejects cooperation with other opposition parties and seeks to secure a place in the ruling coalition.
It has been repeatedly said that there is no political force that can possibly take the place of the LDP. A new political force with a clear agenda of confronting the Abe administration on constitutional revision and nuclear energy may be able to take the lead in achieving robust campaign cooperation among the opposition parties.
An opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun this month showed that over 80 percent of respondents think there needs to be a political party that can challenge the LDP. The DP has a duty to respond to such a frustration on the part of the people.
The DP is at a crossroads. Will it give up fighting — as in the Yokohama mayoral race upon the lure of joining power — or join forces with other opposition parties to put up an alternative to the ruling coalition, as in its victory in the Sendai mayoral race last weekend?
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.