Japan Chair Platform: The LDP Rises Again

 The most successful political party in the postwar democratic world, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), added another glorious prize to its stuffed trophy case with a smashing victory on December 16, 2012. In some ways, this was the party’s greatest electoral victory ever. The LDP’s advantage over the second largest party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), in the House of Representatives (HR) is 237 seats out of a total 480. At 49.3 percent of the size of the chamber, this gap is simply a staggering margin as I pointed out immediately after the election in a short essay for the National Bureau of Asian Research —not only the LDP’s greatest victory ever but also a greater margin of victory than the African National Congress secured in the last (2009) election in South Africa (264 ANC seats to 67 for the Democratic Alliance in a 400 seat chamber)! With the second and third largest parties (the DPJ and the Japan Restoration Party, JRP) unlikely to cooperate, the LDP’s prospects for victory in July’s House of Councillors (HC) election are good which could guarantee the LDP three years of undisturbed governance. This raises two questions: first, why aren’t the LDP celebrating like it is 1955? Second, what did the LDP do while in opposition, and what does this tell us about how they will govern? 

Not the LDP of Old

To answer the first question, Japan is facing a lot of problems in governance and policy challenges including stimulating the economy, territorial disputes with neighbors, and demographic shifts. But the LDP also realizes that the huge victory is deceiving; voters didn’t really embrace the LDP at the polls. Rather, low turnout, a divided opposition, and voter desire to punish the DPJ government combined to manufacture a stunning LDP victory even though fewer voters chose the LDP in 2012 than in 2009 when the LDP was thoroughly trounced by the DPJ in the LDP’s first ever second-place finish at the ballot box. The LDP is also intent on positioning itself to win the HC election this summer. If the LDP can’t capture a majority with its coalition partners, it will be unable to effectively govern the country—a repeat of the “twisted Diets” that plagued the LDP 2007-2009 and the DPJ 2010-2012. The party also recognizes that it could easily be tossed out in dramatic fashion in the next HR election. The past three elections have seen the LDP’s then-greatest victory (2005), its worst loss (2009), and its greatest victory (2012). Who is to say that the next election won’t set a new record for LDP defeat? Everyone recognizes that the days of the LDP’s long-term dominance (the ’55 system) are definitively over thanks to the majoritarian electoral system, rise of media influence, and increasingly independent, or “floating,” voters.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in his second stint in the job. His first tenure began after the popular Junichiro Koizumi stepped down and ended, officially for health reasons, after the LDP lost the 2007 HC election. His first term is not widely considered successful, so an obvious question is whether this time will be different. We’ve had a month to see how Abe intends to run things this time. The short answers seem to be that he’ll focus on bold ideas for the economy (and not the nationalist “beautiful country” theme), and he has paid more attention to competence in his selection of ministers. It’s probably safe to say that he also recognizes how important it will be to make sure that the LDP wins the HC election under his watch this time. 

However, there is a chance that Abe will not last long enough to lead the LDP in the next HR election (which must be called by December 2016), so it is worth looking beyond Abe to the LDP itself. What did the LDP do in opposition? How has the party changed (or not)?  

How much did the LDP change in opposition? 

The short answer is “not that much.” Although it spent three years and three months on the outside looking in, the LDP did not transform itself in opposition. On the face of it, this is a bit surprising. After all, the LDP suffered a calamitous defeat in 2009, gaining a mere 119 seats to the DPJ’s 308—and this on the heels of the LDP’s huge victory in 2005 (296 seats). Moreover, the 2009 defeat irrevocably shattered the LDP’s virtuous circles and aura of invincibility. In the LDP’s first stint out of power (1993-1994) it still held a plurality of seats against a fragile coalition in a minority government. In 2009, it was plain to everyone that the LDP lost and the DPJ won. This first “real” defeat disrupted the pipelines from the central to local government that had kept pork flowing one way and sent in the other direction a steady stream of experienced local LDP politicians able to credibly run for national office. It also meant that the LDP lost the media spotlight on “the government.” 

Still, the LDP didn’t take to heart a message that the party needed to change radically. Rather, the party concentrated its efforts on being an effective opposition party—opposing DPJ policies and criticizing individual DPJ ministers at every opportunity. Moreover, the party also felt that it won the 2010 HC election, and this further reduced any perceived urgency of transforming the party. 

Of course, LDP party documents emphasize “listening” to the people. For example, “listening” are the first and third items in the LDP campaign pamphlet “What We Did Over the Last Three Years” (watakushitachi ga kono san-nenkan ni yattekita koto) published on November 28, 2012. Though during this same period, the party bled rank and file members: about 20 percent fewer party members were to be found in 2012 than in 2009 despite the fact that the 2012 party presidential election was a virtual coronation while in 2009 the LDP’s electoral fortunes had hit bottom. The LDP had both fewer members and fewer votes in 2012 than 2009. 

Although the party undoubtedly listened to citizens, it is hard to avoid the judgment that the LDP contented itself with minor reforms. The party largely passed on opportunities to centralize party organization. The month after its August 2009 shellacking, the LDP formed a “Committee on Vision in Government” (seiken kousou kaigi) headed by party president Sadakazu Tanigaki, but no bold steps were taken. Tanigaki was even initially frustrated in his attempts to form a Shadow Cabinet. Many backbenchers feared this organizational reform would weaken the party’s traditional and decentralized policy-making apparatus (the Policy Affairs Research Council, or PARC, and to a lesser extent Diet Committees). Tanigaki was eventually able to establish a shadow cabinet after the 2010 HC elections, but the resistance to centralization was noteworthy. 

A few years ago, in our book, The Rise and Fall of Japan’s LDP, Ellis Krauss and I predicted that being out of power would weaken the LDP’s factions. Our reasoning was that, absent meaningful positions to distribute to faction members, factions would further disintegrate. Certainly voters don’t like factional politics, and the LDP had an opportunity to rework its party organization while in opposition. The Party Reform Committee threatened factions in May 2011 but entrenched forces blocked any measures that would eliminate factional influence. The party did move to change nominations procedures, instituting an open recruitment process (known as koubo) in response to voter dissatisfaction with “hereditary” candidates. Overall, though, the party did not engage in thoroughgoing reform in response to electoral defeat. 

Learning To Be the Opposition

To be clear, I believe the LDP was an active agent in bringing about its electoral victory, just not by reforming party organization. Instead, the party made several prudent strategic choices that positioned it to benefit from public dissatisfaction with the DPJ. For example, the LDP sidestepped a grand coalition with the DPJ. The party also eschewed a boycott of the Diet at any point. Moreover, the party carefully avoided being seen as obstructionist by blocking any crucial bills, such as disaster relief (the LDP campaign pamphlet touted its 94 percent cooperation rate with the DPJ on relief bills as its fourth achievement). 

That’s not to say that the party made life easy for the DPJ. The LDP relied on a strategy of passing bills, but after extracting amendments from the DPJ. This allowed the LDP to both criticize the DPJ and appear cooperative. The LDP strategy also relied on censure motions aimed at individual ministers and attempts to force an election. 

The LDP succeeded in transforming itself into an effective opposition—opposing DPJ policies, attacking individual ministers, and avoiding potential missteps that would have disqualified it as a safe alternative to the discredited DPJ. However, the party did not take the opportunity afforded by losing power to overhaul the party organization, significantly centralize decisionmaking, abolish factions, or take other measures to boost the party’s popularity with the electorate. The results—LDP winning seats but not votes—testify to both the success and limitations of this strategy. 

Robert Pekkanen is an Associate Professor in the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Japan Chair Platform is published by the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Robert Pekkanen