Japan will soon have a new prime minister. Not because there is a general election coming up – although there is – but because the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the deeply unpopular Yoshihide Suga, abruptly resigned last week. Following a series of local election defeats, an Olympics staged against the public will, and a related fifth Covid wave that has pushed Japan’s medical system into “disaster mode”, Suga’s approval rating had plummeted to its lowest since the LDP’s return to power in 2012. The resignation was surely a wise decision, one that put the party first.
Given how disastrous the last few months have been, one might imagine that Suga’s replacement – almost certainly a man – would have his work cut out to avoid catastrophe in the general election. But that’s not how Japanese democracy works.
The country has largely avoided the polarising populist extremism seen elsewhere.
However, the system’s failure to produce credible opposition figures capable of breaking the LDP’s stranglehold on power has left the Japanese electorate apathetic. Rather than voting for extremist parties, the people just don’t vote: the country has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the democratic world. If there’s no real choice, what does it mean for democracy?
In the short-term it means that, while the conservative LDP might lose a few seats in the general election, due to be called before the end of November, it is still expected to comfortably maintain power. Installing a new leader will cement this even further. Indeed, the very act of staging the leadership election has overshadowed the general election: with all eyes on the LDP, no one is talking about the smaller, divided opposition parties.
In the long term, understanding how it is that a party with an unpopular leader, who quit after barely 12 months in the job, could still go on to easily win an election, and what that means for Japan’s future, requires a quick history lesson. The LDP has ruled almost uninterrupted since its founding in 1955, but this “democracy without competition” was not a foregone conclusion.
In fact, the immediate postwar years saw mass, sometimes violent protests against US military bases, and in 1947 there was even a socialist prime minister. However, in 1960 the leader of the socialist party was assassinated, and the LDP rammed an alliance treaty with the US through Japan’s parliament, the Diet, locking out protesting MPs in the process. With the issue of US bases and Japan’s role in the cold war settled for a generation, and against a weakened socialist party, the LDP set about establishing total dominance. Presiding over Japan’s postwar “economic miracle”, voters rewarded the party with successive majorities. Meanwhile, due to the nature of the Japanese political system, the LDP lavished attention on special interest groups, such as farmers and big business, in order to maximise the value of its votes and ensure financial support for elections. Thus, even as the LDP vote share declined by almost 20 percentage points from the late 1950s to the 1970s, the party still won a comfortable majority of seats.
The combination of economic recession.
A series of high-profile corruption scandals in the early 1990s finally ended the LDP’s near-40-year unbroken rule. In 1993 a patchwork coalition took power and revised the electoral system, partly implementing a Westminster-style first-past-the-post system in order to establish a two-party democracy. Yet, by 1994 the LDP had returned to power, governing for another 15 years.
Neoliberal economic reforms in the 1990s and 2000s increased inequality and insecurity, opening up new spaces for political dissent. Several opposition parties consolidated to form the Democratic party of Japan (DPJ), a more progressive and urban party, which unseated the LDP in 2009. Political scientists heralded the delayed arrival of a two-party system. Elected on a manifesto of social welfare and economic reform, the DPJ’s rule was overshadowed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. The LDP successfully blamed the human-made disaster on the DPJ, despite the fact that deregulation of safety measures took place under successive LDP administrations. By 2012, the LDP was back in power, and the DPJ disintegrated shortly after.
The LDP is a broad church and an incredibly successful vote-winning machine, but its dominance has prevented alternative ideas and fresh faces from emerging. It speaks volumes that the most exciting, young, dynamic candidate for PM is Taro Kono, a 58-year-old party stalwart born into a famous political dynasty.