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Where is Japan’s party system headed?

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW

In recent years, predicting where Japan’s party system is heading has not been easy. The fluidity of party organisations, the internal fracturing and transient existence of many party groupings, and the migration of politicians from one party to another has presented a confused picture.

This picture has been muddled further by the multiple lines of ideological and policy cleavage both within and between parties. The state of flux in Japan’s party system has made even distinguishing the main axes of party competition and policy contestation problematic.

These features of Japan’s party system render the long-overdue split in Japan’s Democratic Party (DP) and the migration of some of its members to either the new Party of Hope or the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) all the more significant.

During its brief existence, the DP sought to brush over the political divisions that had also characterised its predecessor parties. These began life as a schizophrenic compound of ex-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) conservatives and former socialists and democratic socialists. From 1996 until 2016 — including the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DJP) period in power from 2009 to 2012 — the disparate origins of these parties generated a persistent polarisation between the DPJ’s conservative centre-right and progressive centre-left factions. Now these forces appear to have found their natural ideological homes.

The formation of Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s new national-level Party of Hope and the split in the DP has made clearer the lines of division in Japan’s party system. They open the way for a reversion to the traditional conservative-progressive axis in Japanese politics — an ideological divide principally hinging on constitutional and security issues. Currently, this divide segregates the right-leaning LDP, Party of Hope and Japan Innovation Party on one side and the left-leaning Constitutional Democrats, Social Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party on the other.

That only leaves the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito floating in the middle. Komeito is consistently willing to subordinate issues of policy principle to its eagerness to share power by aligning with the dominant political force of the day — as it has done in both national and local (Tokyo assembly) politics.

Initially Koike’s party looked as though it was reshaping the party system to provide a clear alternative to the LDP. But as its manifesto has revealed, while this may be true in terms of personnel and de facto leadership (‘Abe versus Koike’), it is not in terms of fundamental ideological proclivities. This is particularly the case for the larger issue of constitutional revision.

The Party of Hope has policies at variance with those of the LDP. But these are basically variations on right-wing conservative policies. The two groups belong on the same side of the ideological divide.

The Party of Hope’s economic policy is, in some respects, even more to the right than the LDP’s. The Party of Hope has a strong desire to remove the hand of government from the market — including an ambitious privatisation and deregulation program — despite promises to tax corporate cash reserves. Koike also offers a ‘cleaner’, ‘fresher’ image by attacking the kind of cronyism and pork-barrelling that has been the hallmark of LDP rule since 1955.

Koike likely understands that winning the election and forming government will be a bridge too far. First, her party is essentially leaderless — Koike cannot lead her party to victory given her commitment to staying on as governor of Tokyo.

Second, the Party of Hope is standing just enough candidates to form a majority in the lower house. On the other hand, if it succeeds in wresting a sufficient number of seats from the LDP, this may result in Abe’s ousting from the position of prime minister. This is undoubtedly one of Koike’s unspoken objectives in forming a new party to contest the election.

What all this means is that Koike is not providing a true alternative government to the LDP. She is only providing another conservative option. The Party of Hope does not fit the bill in terms of offering an alternative progressive, centrist, non-conservative platform. But it is certainly more socially progressive than the LDP and is led by a woman rather than a man, which is highly symbolic in Japan’s male-dominated political world.

The key difference from the LDP remains the selection of which conservative policies to follow. Koike has muddied the waters further by talking about a possible coalition with the LDP — presumably not under Abe — but possibly under Shigeru Ishiba.

As for the elusive goal of a two-party system, with two large majority parties contesting elections and alternating in government, the dissolution of the DP may have put Japan one step closer.

The CDPJ has the biggest potential for becoming the leading, mainstream opposition party to the LDP. Voters will support it because it is seen as the real opposition to the LDP. It offers a solid platform of centre-left policies — particularly on security and constitutional issues — and in that sense has produced a clearer divide in the party system, something that the DP always straddled within its own ranks. Even if Koike’s Party of Hope fails to live up to the hype that greeted its arrival, it will have done a great favour to the CDPJ in restructuring its Diet membership and policy positions.

On the other hand, if the CDPJ succumbs to the temptation to share power by joining with the Party of Hope to form government, it will prolong the murky policy divisions among Japan’s political parties and continue the subordination of party ideology to coalitions of convenience.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

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