In 1990 US scholar TJ Pempel edited a book titled Uncommon Democracies, which wrote about parliamentary democracies where a single party had been unusually dominant. These included Sweden, Italy, Israel, West Germany and Japan. Australia was also a candidate for entry to this group. Of the original members, Japan alone is left.
Since Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was founded in November 1955, it has spent a mere four years and two months out of office. Apart from two spells between August 1993 and June 1994 as well as between September 2009 and December 2012, the LDP has either held the reins of power on its own or as the dominant party in a coalition government for some 58 years. Between 1955 and 1993, the LDP was in power virtually on its own. Between August 1994 and January 1996, it was in coalition with the Social Democratic Party under a Socialist Democratic Party prime minister. Since January 1996 it has been the dominant partner in coalitions (most durably with the Buddhist-based Komeito).
One suggestion made several times to members of the Japanese establishment is that the politics of their country would be healthier if alternations in power were at least accepted as a normal part of their political culture. Usually, this suggestion is met with disagreement and occasionally it is met with perplexity at hearing such a strange proposition.
When the LDP was at last soundly defeated in a general election on 30 August 2009 and a government dominated by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power, it appeared that the model of single-party dominance was at an end. That was not to be. The DPJ government suffered from inexperience, internal personal and ideological rivalries, insufficient funding for its ambitious welfare programs as well as a much weaker nationwide party organisation than that of the LDP.
While the DPJ had captured the National Diet, it still faced deep hostility from the LDP, the business community, the media and the government bureaucracy (whose influence on policymaking it was trying to curb). This is not to mention hostility from the United States, which did little to help former DPJ prime minister Hatoyama Yukio in his quest to relocate a contentious US marine base out of Okinawa.
In 2011, one of the greatest natural disasters of modern times to hit Japan — now known as ‘3/11’ — occurred on the watch of prime minister Kan Naoto, the second of the three prime ministers to serve during the DPJ’s period in office. While many were critical of Kan’s crisis management, they failed to ask whether the LDP would have performed any better had it been in power at the time. In the end, the DPJ government had lost most of its reforming zeal. It took on some of the less attractive features of a typical LDP government and rapidly fell apart.
Arguments can be made in favour of longevity in office. A government that is stably in power can plan for the long term. The time horizon of a politician in most democratic countries is short and controlled by the next election — a serious problem for dealing with long-term problems such as climate change. But a government that spends too long in office easily becomes complacent and sometimes corrupt. The prospect of losing power at the next election concentrates the mind of government ministers.
A dangerous effect of the DPJ’s failure has therefore been the discrediting of opposition parties as a whole. The Japanese term for ‘opposition party’ is yato, or ‘party out of power’. It could even be translated ‘party in the wilderness’. The notion of a party that opposes the government and holds it to account is relatively weak in Japan. Opposition parties have tended to be rhetorical rather than forging an alternative program. The DPJ with its electoral 2009 ‘manifesto’ went some way to correct this, but circumstances were adverse.
Until the 1990s the most effective opposition came from rival factions within the LDP. Even though factionalism was linked with corruption, the factions presented alternative approaches and created pluralism. This aspect of the political system became much weaker with electoral reform in the 1990s and later reforms that strengthened the executive.
The executive in the 1990s needed a boost to its powers (the weakness of which had been symbolised by a rapid turnover of prime ministers). But the performance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggests that executive dominance has gone too far and that opposition, both outside and within the dominant party, has become too weak. The current unstable crop of opposition party leaders are either too close to the government — such as Yuriko Koike — or too weak in the National Diet to hold the government to account.
Arthur Stockwin is an Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
First published in “Australia and Japan in the Region” Forum of the Australia-Japan Research Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, Vol.6, No.1, January 2018.