Coming to Japan: two-party politics

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 12:00am

In the end, the weather was just not bad enough. Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated politics since 1955, claimed victory in Sunday's national election as it and its coalition partners took a comfortable majority in the Diet.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's celebrations have been muted, however: the LDP's failure to win an outright majority in the Lower House will embolden obstructionists within his own party who oppose his reform agenda. But if Mr Koizumi is genuinely concerned about his country's future - and not just that of his party - then he will applaud his win, and Japan's march towards a two-party political system, which promises more focused debates and sharper choices for voters.

Some 35 million of Japan's 100 million voters have no party loyalty. Most are urban residents, young and well-educated. In other words, they fit the demographic profile of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). When this group votes, it can influence elections but, being unaffiliated, people have less interest in politics or reason to go to the polls. That makes the weather critical. Good weather provides distractions; bad weather usually increases voter turnout.

This time, turnout was 59.8 per cent, only slightly above the historic low of 1996. Yet even that anaemic figure propelled the DPJ to all-time highs. The party won 177 seats, up from 137 held before the vote, but short of its target of 200.

In contrast, the ruling three-party coalition - consisting of the LDP, the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party - won 275 seats in 480-seat Lower House.

Nonetheless, Mr Koizumi looked anything but happy on Monday morning, and for good reason. The coalition lost 11 seats. The Democrats won more seats through proportional representation than did the LDP, a real sign of strength. Worse, his LDP lost its simple majority; its 237 seats are 10 less than it held in the previous Diet.

Mr Koizumi has put the best face possible on the outcome, calling it a victory and pledging to pursue his reform platform. Good luck. These results have emboldened the old guard in his party, who are likely to flex their muscles after realising that Mr Koizumi's coat-tails are shrinking.

Increasing resistance will not help the party. The LDP is losing support because voters have lost patience with the slow pace of reform. More infighting will only increase paralysis and voter disaffection.

Voters are leaving the LDP, but they are also abandoning the small parties that have been an integral part of Japan's political order. The result, then, is consolidation of a two-party system in Japan, and that is not a bad thing. Voters will now have real choices in policies; elections will be decided by political positions, rather than personalities. Japan can have real political debates as the fringe parties are forced from the stage. This process has been underway since 1993, when Japan first passed political reform. It is partially responsible for the changes in Japanese security policies.

In concrete terms, the results are going to increase the strength of New Komeito, which won three new seats and now holds 34. The party's chief asset is the eight million votes it can mobilise by virtue of its ties to the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai. The party is certain to remain in the current coalition, where it can maximise its influence on pension reform, a crucial issue for many of its constituents. The party is also a reluctant supporter of the dispatch of troops to Iraq; while its opposition may grow more vocal, Mr Koizumi is unlikely to reconsider deployment - short of sustained casualties, which is a real possibility.

If the Democrats continue to gain power, New Komeito may find itself being wooed by both large parties, and the Democrats have already started making overtures. In that case, it may become a swing party, capable of making and breaking governments.

Increased resistance to reform within the LDP and the ruling coalition is also likely to have a powerful impact on Japan's prospects. Despite the recent economic upturn, the long-term outlook is not good. In short, budget constraints will cut deep into Japanese options, whether it is development assistance, military modernisation or diplomatic initiatives.

That is likely to be the most important outcome of this election. Like the march towards a two-party system, it is likely to be a slow and unwieldy process, visible only to those who really look for it. Nonetheless, it is as inevitable as a rainy day in November.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank