The Continuing Predicament of Japan’s Opposition


January 13, 2022

Dr. Ko Maeda, Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science at University of North Texas

New Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Kenta Izumi (left) and former party leader Yukio Edano (right) at an extraordinary meeting of party members in Tokyo on Nov. 30, 2021, after Izumi won a party leadership election the same day. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

The election for Japan’s House of Representatives on October 31, 2021, resulted in the fourth straight general election victory for the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito. Although the coalition reduced its seats from the last election, it still maintains a comfortable majority in the chamber. With a renewed mandate, the government led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida can now focus on governing, tackling difficult issues the country faces.

In contrast, the opposition camp is in disarray. The euphoric memory of the landslide opposition victory in 2009, in which the LDP’s seat share declined to just 25% of the total seats, seems like an event in the distant past. There is no sign that the opposition may grow and become competitive against the LDP in the near future. Japan’s opposition may have reverted to its old self—a perpetual opposition.

One of the major problems with Japan’s opposition is that it is fragmented into so many parties. Seven opposition parties (excluding minor parties that are too small to be eligible for state funding) fielded candidates in the 2021 election. When there are many opposition parties, as opposed to a single main opposition party like in the United States, anti-government votes necessarily split, and those voters who look for an alternative to the incumbent government may not find any of the opposition parties as a viable option.[1]

This is an especially serious issue in the single-member district (SMD) tier of the election, which fills more than 60% of the total seats of the House of Representatives. Since each district in the SMD tier has only one seat, multiple candidates from the same political grouping hurt each other and give an advantage to the other side. The ruling parties, the LDP and Komeito, always coordinate candidate nominations and make sure that no district has candidates from both.[2] In order to compete against them, opposition parties would need to do the same and concentrate anti-government votes into a unified candidate in each district.

However, the issue is not that simple for Japan’s opposition. First of all, each party has its agenda and identity and wants to protect its organization. Withdrawing candidates from districts is not an easy decision to make. Second, due to ideological differences, some opposition parties do not like to work with others. A notable example is Nippon Ishin no Kai (Ishin), which advocates spending cuts and small government. Ishin’s neoliberal economic policies, among others, are clearly incompatible with other opposition parties that are located on the left side of the ideological spectrum. Third, perhaps most importantly, at the far left of the ideological dimension of Japanese politics, there is the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). While they have loyal and energetic supporters throughout Japan, they are not at all popular among the majority of the population. Mainstream opposition parties must make a difficult choice of what to do with the JCP.

Japan’s center-left mainstream parties have always agonized over this “JCP problem.” If they shun the JCP due to its far-left policies, which they have always done in the past, then the JCP fields its own candidates in all districts throughout the country. This results in a further splitting of opposition votes. Many LDP candidates managed to keep winning close races with less than 50% of votes—with unintended help from the JCP.

In the 21st century, however, the JCP has been becoming less isolationist. In the 2009 election, the JCP voluntarily withdrew its candidates from about half of the districts, contributing to the historic opposition victory.[3] In 2015, the JCP made a major change in its course when the ruling coalition proposed and eventually passed a controversial new national security legislation. Opposition parties, including the JCP, launched a coordinated protest movement, along with citizens and groups that were opposed to the legislation. After the passage of the bill, the JCP announced that it would seek the formation of a “national coalition government” that would replace the LDP-Komeito coalition and repeal the security legislation.[4] Proposing to form a coalition with other parties was a bold move for the JCP, considering the isolationist tendency it had for such a long period of time.

During the months leading up to the 2021 election, Yukio Edano, the then leader of the largest opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), had negotiations with other opposition parties. However, no negotiations with Ishin were had, which never showed any interest in working with the other opposition parties. On September 8, the CDP, the JCP, the Social Democratic Party, and Reiwa Shinsengumi signed a policy agreement. The opposition parties, except for Ishin, also worked to coordinate candidate nominations so that they would not over-nominate candidates in each district. As a result, three-quarters of the districts had a unified candidate from those parties, with a majority of the unified candidates coming from the CDP.[5] Further, the CDP and the JCP agreed on September 30 that the JCP would play a cooperating role for a CDP-led cabinet in a “limited manner” if they defeated the LDP-Komeito coalition. It was also made clear that the JCP would not formally join a CDP-led coalition.[6]

The CDP’s major headache is that its largest support group, Rengo (the Japanese Trade Union Confederation—the country’s largest labor organization), has always been in a conflictual relationship with the JCP. On October 7, Rengo’s president squarely rebuffed the idea that the JCP would cooperate with a CDP-led government even from the outside of the cabinet.[7] The LDP and Komeito also criticized the CDP-JCP agreement and argued that a CDP-led government would be under strong influence of the JCP.

Edano had to face a sobering reality on election night. Even though many candidates of his party won close races, perhaps thanks to the opposition’s coordinated candidate nominations, the CDP’s overall seat share declined from what it had before the election, largely due to the party’s sub-par performance in the proportional representation tier. Edano took responsibility for his party’s defeat and resigned as the party leader. The JCP also lost seats in this election.

Ironically, Ishin emerged as the biggest winner of the election, more than tripling its seats, even though it did not cooperate with other opposition parties. The Democratic Party for the People (DPP), which is located to the right of the CDP ideologically, is another opposition party that did not join the four-party policy agreement that included the JCP, and the DPP also gained seats in this election.

The CDP then conducted an internal election and elected Kenta Izumi as its new leader. Izumi is generally considered to lean right in the party, and he announced that he would reconsider his party’s relationship with the JCP.[8] Izumi will need to steer his party in this tricky situation, being sandwiched by the DPP on its right and the JCP on its left. The JCP wants to keep working with the CDP, but Rengo hopes to see a merger of the CDP and the DPP.[9] Those two things cannot happen together.

The JCP is in a difficult position, too. Even though the party lost seats in the election, it continues to argue that the cooperation of opposition parties achieved a positive result overall.[10] Presumably, since the current JCP leadership has committed to the cooperative strategy so deeply, it cannot admit the strategy’s failure or alter course. This means that, even if the CDP decides to stop working with the JCP and start ignoring it, the JCP will have little bargaining power. After all, what gives the JCP strength in negotiations is a threat to run many candidates in districts, dragging down CDP candidates and letting LDP candidates win. Since the JCP has devoted itself to the opposition cooperation so strongly, this threat will hardly be credible.

The next major election will be the House of Councillors election in July 2022. Ishin will most likely try to continue its upward trajectory and nominate many new candidates (in the last House of Councillors election in 2019, Ishin ran its candidates in only 7 of the 45 prefectural districts). Similarly, after gaining seats while keeping distance from the JCP, the DPP will no doubt maintain its current strategy. The DPP’s leader announced that his party will try to increase the number of candidates.[11] The CDP must do a difficult balancing act with respect to its relationship with the JCP. The CDP’s left-wing politicians and supporters want the party to keep working with the JCP, but the more moderate wing of the party is afraid that a close relationship with the JCP may lead the party to another electoral defeat. While the opposition parties are preoccupied with their own business and bargaining among themselves, Prime Minister Kishida can focus on his agendas, without needing to worry about competition from opposition parties.

 

[1] Ko Maeda. 2010. “Divided We Fall: Opposition Fragmentation and the Electoral Fortunes of Governing Parties.” British Journal of Political Science, 40(2):419-34. https://doi.org/10.1017/S000712340999041X

[2] Adam P. Liff and Ko Maeda. 2019. “Electoral Incentives, Policy Compromise, and Coalition Durability: Japan’s LDP-Komeito Government in a Mixed Electoral System.” Japanese Journal of Political Science, 20(1): 53-73. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1468109918000415

[3] Ko Maeda. 2010. “Factors Behind the Historic Defeat of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party in 2009.” Asian Survey, 50(5): 888-907. https://doi.org/10.1525/as.2010.50.5.888

[4] The Japanese Communist Party. 2015. “Shii answers foreign reporters’ questions about JCP proposal to form ‘national coalition gov’t to repeal war legislation.’” https://www.jcp.or.jp/english/jcpcc/blog/2015/10/20151017-Shii-answers-foreign.html

[5] Asahi Shimbun. October 20, 2021. https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASPBM6VMWPBMUTFK01N.html

[6] Nikkei Shimbun. September 30, 2021. https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXZQOUA305U40Q1A930C2000000/

[7] Nikkei Shimbun. October 7, 2021. https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXZQOUA074AQ0X01C21A0000000/

[8] Nikkei Shimbun. November 30, 2021. https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXZQOUA262880W1A121C2000000/

[9] Sankei Shimbun. November 28, 2021, and December 1, 2021, https://www.sankei.com/article/20211128-T4VWQZOM25N5NGR2L34BB4NA5Q/ and https://www.sankei.com/article/20211201-XZ2L3MTVXBI3DPBVEW6XJG5EKQ/

[10] Akahata (the JCP’s official newspaper). November 2, 2021. https://www.jcp.or.jp/akahata/aik21/2021-11-02/2021110202_01_0.html

[11] Nikkei Shimbun. December 12, 2021. https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXZQOUA1220F0S1A211C2000000/

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