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Editorial: A decade after temporarily gaining power, Japan’s opposition needs fresh role

  • August 30, 2019
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

Aug. 30 marks exactly 10 years since the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) wrested the reins of government from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with a victory in the House of Representatives election in 2009.


It was the first time for the Japanese government to change hands as a direct result of a national election since the end of World War II.


Despite the change being such a historic event, there have been hardly any moves to reflect positively on the DPJ administration. This is apparently due to the lingering image that the party steered the government toward failure.


Certainly, the DPJ was immature in its policy measures and governing ability when it took control of the government, and it eventually ended up on a path to self-destruction. The administration’s biggest failure was that it attempted to bring about extreme political leadership by pushing bureaucrats aside.


That said, the power shift was not without significance. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returned to power in 2012, has taken a right-wing position while broadening his policy spheres to the left, such as making preschool education free and raising minimum wages.


Such moves appear to be based on Abe’s political calculation that incorporating the former DPJ’s policy measures would help prevent opposition forces from regaining power again. Had it not been for the 2009 regime change, it would have been difficult for the LDP to revamp its rigid policy measures.


The DPJ has since realigned itself time and again by changing its name, splintering under the long-standing predominance of the Abe administration. Meanwhile, the Diet’s function of monitoring the executive branch of government has been hollowed out as the influence of opposition parties has waned. Furthermore, moves by bureaucrats to curry favor with the prime minister’s office has apparently become rampant.


For democracy to function soundly, a country needs to have a political system where the presence of opposition parties creates a sense of tension for the ruling bloc and generates competition. It is high time we considered anew how opposition parties should stand in national politics.


The single-seat constituency system for the House of Representatives was introduced in Japan during political reform in the 1990s to systematically promote the formation of opposition forces capable of countering the LDP, allowing a change of government.


This move stemmed from the public’s strong wishes to change what seemed to be an endlessly long-running administration led by a single ruling bloc. Such wishes were fulfilled once with the 2009 turn of government.


In the 1990s, democracy and the market economy were regarded across the world as cure-all medicine following the end of the Cold War. At that time, Japan sought to reform its political system into one modeled after Britain’s two-party system.


However, Britain is now in disarray over its divorce from the European Union, exposing indecisiveness in London’s politics. The United States, which has similarly embraced a two-party system, has also encountered a social divide under the administration of President Donald Trump.


As China’s rising presence overshadows U.S. influence in the global arena, the 21st century is witnessing great change both politically and economically. While the advance of globalism has boosted the mobility of capital, people and products, it has also widened economic gaps in various countries.


In both Britain and the U.S., the major conservative party upholding traditional values and the liberal party espousing social equality are vying for support from the middle class.

However, globalism can also stimulate nationalism and generate exclusivist political forces.


Conservative parties often lean toward a nation-first policy while liberal parties tend to shun fiscal austerity. Democracy is supposed to support consensus-building through coordination among parties. But when political parties’ claims become polarized, it does not function properly. This is exactly what Britain and the U.S. are experiencing now.


Amid the drastic changes in the world order and global economy, we are tempted to question the ideal form for a country’s political party system.


In Japan’s political spectrum, the LDP is leaning toward the right and the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) is tilting to the left. However Japan differs significantly from Britain and the U.S. in that the power of opposition parties, which are supposed to attract voters critical of the governing administration, has continued to wane.


The voter turnout in the recent House of Councillors election dipped below the 50% mark apparently because many voters who are dissatisfied with the government but cannot support opposition parties chose to abstain from voting.


The CDP is poised to form a parliamentary alliance with the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP), another key opposition party, ahead of the extraordinary Diet session this coming fall.


While both parties can trace their origins to the DPJ, it would be difficult for them to counter the gigantic ruling coalition in a joint struggle merely by getting back together, if they aim to take over the reins of government again.


The two parties should refrain from getting involved in the usual leadership struggles within the opposition camp over such divisive issues as constitutional amendment and nuclear power policy.


Democracy is not viable unless there are political parties that can sum up public opinion over a broad spectrum. For opposition parties to take on the ruling bloc, they need to form a group large enough to do so. It is also essential for the opposition camp to present policy packages that can become points of contention vis-a-vis the ruling camp.


The Abe administration has been able to boast of back-to-back victories in national elections even though public support for the administration is not that strong. The underlying public sentiment appears to be that people expect an administration spurred by economic growth to be stable for the time being, though they have growing misgivings about their future.


The opposition parties will be able to win public backing if they squarely face up to the issues of Japan’s shrinking population, declining birth rate and aging society and focus on policy measures that show responsibility toward future generations.


The opposition parties are urged to pursue a fresh role that can bring dynamism to Japan’s party politics.

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