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Empty center: Doughnut effect shapes political rift in Japan, U.S.

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei political editor

 

TOKYO — With centrist politicians vanishing from the landscape, both Japan and the U.S. are experiencing what may be described as a political doughnut effect.

 

Under the conventional definition, a doughnut effect refers to the hollowing out of city centers as a result of population and employment declines. As the hole at the center gets bigger, the suburban population increases.

Likewise, as politicians lean toward left or right, a political vacuum has emerged in the middle here and across the Pacific.

 

In the October general election in Japan, the top opposition Constitutional Democratic Party formed a pact with the Japanese Communist Party, depriving voters of middle-of-the-road choices.

 

In the U.S., President Joe Biden’s policy has veered left since his inauguration, creating a rift with centrist voters.

 

Kenta Izumi, who was elected the new leader of the Constitutional Democrats on Tuesday, promised to reassess the party’s election alliance with the Communist Party.

 

Izumi is replacing Yukio Edano, the architect of the campaign pact who resigned, taking responsibility for the party’s poor showing in the general election.

 

The election of Izumi, who is considered more of a centrist, can be interpreted as the rejection of Edano’s strategy.

 

The Constitutional Democrats did lose seats in proportional representation but gained in single-seat districts, a fact cited by proponents of the opposition campaign alliance as evidence of its success.

 

In the upper house election set for summer, the 32 single-seat districts will likely sway the outcome. A successful alliance among opposition parties could tip the outcome to their favor.

 

If the opposition camp secures a majority in the upper house, that would upend the current power dynamic in parliament.

 

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its partner Komeito, which will still control the lower house, would no longer be able to pass legislation on their own. The opposition parties would be able to parlay that momentum into wins in the next general election.

 

But it would not be that easy for the Constitutional Democrats, which fought the previous election with distinctively left-leaning policy proposals, to quickly swing back to the middle.

 

In the U.S., the Democratic Party lost last month’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, a state bordering Washington D.C. The loss was particularly painful because Biden campaigned for the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe.

According to CNN exit polls, the defeat is attributed to independent voters going for the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin. Independent voters, who do not align with Democrats or Republicans, tend to favor centrist policy.

 

That they went for Youngkin is not unrelated to Biden’s leftward tilt. The same can be said about the New Jersey gubernatorial election, in which a Democrat narrowly squeaked out a win.

 

Former President Donald Trump adopted a so-called zero-tolerance policy toward migrants illegally crossing the border. In response, Biden has endorsed the idea of paying compensation to families separated at the border under Trump’s policy.

 

Using taxpayer money to compensate undocumented migrants bears an unmistakable mark of progressive policy.

 

Biden won both Virginia and New Jersey in the 2020 presidential election. He beat Trump by nearly 16 points in New Jersey — making the 3.2-point squeaker in the governor’s race there a surprise.

 

Pundits say Biden will have to move toward the center ahead of the midterm election in November next year.

 

The scaling down of the social spending bill seemed to signal Biden’s policy adjustment. At the same time, it would be difficult for a president who won with the help from the progressives to overhaul his campaign strategy for the midterm election.

 

A doughnut effect in politics means a vacuum at the center, which could foster a divide in the country and give rise to populism. How to fill that vacuum is a crucial question for political stability in the U.S. and Japan.

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