Pyeongtaek, South Korea – The Democratic Party for the People (DPP) formally decided Wednesday to dissolve and enable its members to join the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), paving the way for the long-negotiated merger of Japan’s two largest opposition parties. For many, this merger will demonstrate a growing front against an Abe administration that is facing increased dissatisfaction among the public. Others, however, will understand that coalescing a viable opposition is not as simple as combining parties.
The situation with the DPP and CDP offers observers a window into understanding the obstacles that Japan’s opposition parties face, even when situations should otherwise seem politically advantageous to them. The fact remains that challenging the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition is not just about winning public support, it is about overcoming the institutional and policy hurdles that exist within Japan’s political system.
Since 1955, there have only been two instances in which the LDP fell out of power — in 1993 and 2009, and in both cases the LDP restored its control of the government within a few years. Why is that? What is it about the state of opposition parties in Japan that prevent them from enjoying long-term success?
It is not that Japan’s political opposition lacks talent. If one wants to see a proper grilling of the ruling administration in the Diet, watch the CDP’s Kiyomi Tsujimoto thunder away at Cabinet ministers. If one is looking for a strong defense-minded politician, Seiji Maehara from the DPP is cut from the same cloth as former LDP Defense Ministers Itsunori Onodera and Gen Nakatani. Meanwhile, the Japan Communist Party’s Kazuo Shii and Akira Koike have demonstrated strong leadership in weathering many elections while still preserving a small but undeniable presence in Japanese politics.
Instead, opposition parties are stacked against a system in which there are institutional and policy obstacles to gaining and maintaining power. Looking first at the institutional issues: To achieve control of the government, a political party must win a majority of the seats in the Diet, whether by its own membership or through a coalition. The first challenge then comes down to the simple matter of numbers. Why is it so hard for opposition parties to gain seats?
The answer to that question boils down to four things. First, campaign periods are short: in general, around 30 days (while the “formal” period of campaign is even shorter). While this eliminates the drawn out campaigning that exists in places like the United States, it means that there is very little time for candidates to make themselves known to voters.
The second issue is financing. In Japan, candidates for a national level political office require a ¥3 million deposit ($28,000) just to run. While this is designed to weed out potential troublemakers, it also introduces a steep hurdle for aspiring Diet politicians, especially grassroots candidates.
This then leads to the third issue: the need for an established support base. The ruling coalition holds the advantage here, since the LDP has been around since 1955 and has prominent local chapters across the country. Further, individual LDP members have koenkai (“local support groups”) that offer transactional support bases: the koenkai provides campaign financing and vote-gathering, and the Diet politician delivers political kickbacks and pork barrel projects. As for Komeito, the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization provides its own well-established pool of voters and benefactors for the party.
Some of Japan’s longer-standing and regional opposition parties (like the JCP and Nippon Ishin no Kai) have similar support bases, but any new or fledgling parties have a major handicap to overcome. Even if they are able to generate enough support for a single election, they do not have the benefit of firmly rooted support organizations. What that means is that the margin for error for opposition politicians is extremely low before voters begin to look elsewhere for their preferred candidates or simply decide not to turn out for the next election. This is why low voter turnout benefits the LDP and Komeito, because their supporters consistently show up at the polling stations.
The last institutional issue is the timing advantage for the ruling coalition. Because of a loose interpretation of Article 7 of the Constitution, the prime minister can dissolve the Lower House, prompting an election within 40 days. This means that the ruling coalition can time a snap election for the most politically advantageous moments while keeping opposition parties on their heels. Developing election platforms, finding quality candidates and gaining the financial capital necessary to cover campaign deposits are themselves herculean tasks, made even more difficult by the condensed timeline.
Another major obstacle that opposition parties face is in the policy realm. Japanese political parties do not present wide differences on valence issues that are important to voters, such as the economy. In Japan, there are no parties championing big government versus small government, or austerity versus government spending. In general, on things like welfare, subsidies and government debt, it is not generally a question of whether but of how much. Some may read this and argue that opposition parties in fact have nuanced but meaningful differences from administration policies like Abenomics. The problem is that nuance does not energize a voter base, especially one that can rival the LDP and Komeito’s well-established support network.
Instead of fighting over valence issues, opposition parties generally rely on one of two tactics: championing position issues, or simply arguing that they represent a necessary change from LDP old guard politics. Position issues are things like climate change, support for LGBTQ rights or hosting U.S. military bases, and while playing up these issues can catalyze support in municipal and prefectural elections, they are not typically enough to carry a party through a national election.
Even if those parties were to succeed on a position issue-based platform, they would then have to deliver on their campaign promises, which is not always feasible. This was a factor that contributed to DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s downfall when he pledged to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa and failed.
Absent clear differences on valence and position issues, the baseline promise is that opposition parties can offer voters a change from the LDP. The challenge then is convincing the public that (1) change is necessary and (2) the opposition parties can do better. This leads to another challenge.
The last obstacle for opposition parties is personality. Since there are so many institutional and policy obstacles, the opposition has tended to rely on coalitions and mergers to coalesce enough numbers to take a run at the ruling party. The problem with this is that it introduces the need to manage the big-name politicians who all want to be in charge. While opposition party leaders may all want to work together in achieving the common objective of ousting the LDP, the question then becomes what their unified policy platform is, and who will be in charge.
Take, for example, the merger between the CDP and DPP happening right now: Two of the most prominent members of the DPP — current party leader Yuichiro Tamaki and former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara — have already declared their refusal to join the CDP on grounds of policy differences. This is in addition to the fact that many of these CDP and DPP politicians were all part of the DPJ at one point and had tried and failed to maintain unity. When this internal discord plays out in the media, it shakes the public’s confidence that a cobbled-together opposition can really provide a better alternative to the ruling coalition.
Compounding these challenges is that all of these things that are banes to opposition parties are also boons to the LDP. The LDP exploits its institutional advantages, especially when it comes to the timing and execution of elections. While the Japanese public and pundits alike have called for change, it should come as no surprise that any LDP promises of electoral reform are aimed at fixing internal party dynamics — such as the power of LDP factions — rather than establishing a more balanced two-party or multi-party system.
The LDP has also overcome policy and personality issues because it is not a monolithic organization. When it originally formed in 1955, it was a combination of center-left to right parties, and this policy spectrum still exists within the LDP today. This presents a critical advantage for the LDP: The party can simultaneously offer a promise of stable government with a change in leadership and policy direction.
All of this is not to say that a newly invigorated CDP cannot succeed in challenging the LDP. Nor is it meant to argue that LDP single-party politics is the best answer for Japan. Just like any country, there are issues in the Japanese political system, and the question now is whether the CDP can overcome the obstacles that have caused so many opposition parties in the past to falter.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan.