The Difficult Role of the Top Opposition Party: The Democratic Party of Japan
Machidori Satoshi January 4, 2016
This article, “The Difficult Role of the Top Opposition Party: The Democratic Party of Japan,’” is available through a partnership between Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and Nippon.com. The article originally was written and published in Japanese on November 30, 2015 and in English on December 18, 2015. For the original posting, click here.
The Democratic Party of Japan, which was in power for three years starting in 2009, took a posture of extreme resistance to the passage of the national security legislation that the National Diet enacted in September this year. Why did the DPJ, currently the biggest opposition party, choose a course that included physical resistance within the Diet and linkage with protesters outside the Diet, tactics like those used by the former Japan Socialist Party when it was the leading opposition force? In this article I will address this question as it relates to the basic political structure of Japan today.
Single-Party Versus Coalition Government Under a Parliamentary System
Looking around the world, we see considerable diversity in the operation of the parliamentary system of government, the system that Japan adopted after World War II. Particularly salient is the difference between parliamentary systems where the government led by a single party or a very small number of parties and those where government is by a coalition of multiple parties, often three or more.
In the case of single-party rule, the government (cabinet) and ruling party generally work out any internal differences and finalize the contents of proposed legislation before submitting it to the legislature. The consent of the ruling party is sufficient for enactment of the legislation, and there is virtually no revision of the content during the course of legislative deliberations, since the provisions have been worked out in advance. The policymaking process is generally led by the government. Britain is the prime example of this style of parliamentary government.
In the case of coalition rule, by contrast, the policymaking process is led mainly by the parties in the ruling coalition. The wishes of the cabinet (prime minister) are of course given priority, but inasmuch as no single party holds a majority of the seats in the legislature, policies cannot be adopted unless the coalition members reach agreement among themselves.
When the coalition members have not fully worked out their differences before submission of a bill to the legislature, they seek to enact it while accepting revisions in the course of legislative deliberations. In such cases it becomes feasible for opposition parties to get involved. This sort of legislative process is fairly common in continental European countries.
Japan’s Peculiar Form of Coalition Government
It is unusual for the opposition to be involved in making revisions to a bill during legislative deliberations; in most cases the bill is enacted just as submitted by the government.
Here in Japan the basic pattern for the policymaking process has been that of single-party rule. Since 1993 the government has ordinarily been in the hands of a ruling coalition, but in almost every case the coalition has been dominated by one party, either the Liberal Democratic Party or The Democratic Party of Japan. The dominant party, while governing in coalition with a much smaller party or parties, has held over 80% of the coalition’s seats in the House of Representatives.
Though the main ruling party may take into account the wishes of its smaller coalition partners because it needs their votes in the upper house, for the most part the policy decisions on the content of proposed legislation are reached through consultations within the government and main party prior to submission of bills to the Diet. Except in periods when the opposition parties hold a majority in the upper house, it is unusual for the opposition to be involved in making revisions to a bill during legislative deliberations; in most cases the bill is enacted just as submitted by the government.
The Opposition in a Difficult Corner
What role do opposition parties play in a parliamentary system where policymaking follows the single-party pattern? The key feature shaping this situation is the fact that proposed legislation is generally not revised in the course of legislative deliberations.
In the case of Japan’s postwar parliamentary system, it has sometimes been possible for the opposition to win concessions from the ruling party by refusing to participate in legislative proceedings or using other delaying tactics. This approach takes advantage of the shortness of Diet sessions and the tendency of the media to criticize the ruling party if it railroads a bill through the legislature. In most cases, though, the concessions are within the scope of what the government expected when submitting the bill. It is highly unusual for a truly important piece of legislation to end up being scrapped.
Since it is so difficult to secure substantial revisions or to block passage of a key bill, the opposition finds itself in a difficult tactical corner. The textbook approach for opposition parties under a single-party policymaking pattern is to point out problems with the governments’ bills through debate in the Diet, get its position reported by the media, attract public support, and thereby win enough votes to take power after the next election. But in many cases the level of public interest in the Diet debate is low, and so this approach is of dubious effectiveness in terms of voter appeal.
The Futility of Alternatives
Opposition parties are often urged to present alternatives to bills submitted by the government. But since the policymaking process is dominated by a single ruling party, submission of alternative legislation by an opposition party has no effect beyond publicizing that party’s position; in the case of most individual bills there is no advantage for the party submitting it, particularly if it is a large party like the Democratic Party of Japan.
Opposition parties are often urged to present alternatives to bills submitted by the government. But since the policymaking process is dominated by a single ruling party, submission of alternative legislation by an opposition party has no effect beyond publicizing that party’s position.
If the alternative bill is a wholesale revision, chances of its acceptance are nil. When a piece of legislation proposed by the government is an object of confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties, the contents of the government bill are worked out in advance within the main ruling party and in talks between representatives of the party and the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, a process that takes considerable time and energy. So once the bill has been submitted, it is not feasible to make revisions beyond what can be reconciled with the contents previously worked out by the government and ruling party.
And if the alternative bill from the opposition makes only minor changes, its appeal to voters will be too weak to be effective. Furthermore, the opposition party that submits such a bill has to support it in the Diet, and it is liable to face criticism from the media and its supporters for being too compromising.
In this context we can begin to see the reason for the DPJ’s choice of tactics in the face of the government’s proposed national security legislation, including its tie-up with the protest movement outside the Diet and its resort to physical force to block the legislative process within the Diet.
Understanding the DPJ’s Choice
When the protest movement against the proposed legislation gathered support outside the Diet, allying with it appeared to be the most rational choice for the DPJ… As it turned out, however, the course that the DPJ chose did not have as much of an effect as the party had hoped.
From the DPJ’s perspective, the approach of appealing to voters by revealing the defects in the government’s proposed legislation through debate in the Diet did not promise adequate results. Though the Democratic Party of Japan took this approach in the initial stage of deliberations, interest in the Diet debate remained at a low level until the three constitutional experts invited to address the House of Representatives Commission on the Constitution unanimously expressed the view that the proposed legislation was unconstitutional. Furthermore, voters conventionally place top priority on the economy in terms of policy issues, and it seemed unlikely that discontent with the government’s national security legislation would cause a decisive drop in support for Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s administration and have a major impact on the outcome of the next election.
The DPJ could not see any point in submitting an alternative proposal either. The ruling coalition now has a majority in both houses of the Diet, and there was no prospect for it to accept a wholesale revision proposed by the leading opposition party on a top-priority package of legislation that the government and LDP were making an all-out effort to get enacted. And if the DPJ were to submit just some partial revisions, it would find itself under pressure to support the legislation in return for minor concessions from the ruling coalition. The government and ruling coalition were probably prepared to go along with some revisions so as to avoid criticism for railroading the legislation through the Diet, but securing support from one or more of the smaller opposition parties was sufficient for this purpose, and so there did not seem to be any reason for them to make concessions to the DPJ.
When the protest movement against the proposed legislation gathered support outside the Diet, allying with it appeared to be the most rational choice for the Democratic Party of Japan. The protest movement was strongly nonpartisan in appearance, and that was how the media pictured it. Joining hands with the protesters offered the DPJ a better prospect than Diet debate or submission of alternative legislation as a way of appealing clearly and quickly to a broad range of voters.
An Unsuccessful Outcome for the Democratic Party of Japan
As it turned out, however, the course that the DPJ chose did not have as much of an effect as the party had hoped. Various opinion polls taken after the national security legislation was enacted showed a decline in support for the Abe administration, but even so it has maintained favorable ratings of around 40%. Meanwhile, support for the DPJ failed to rise and has remained at a level far below that of the LDP. There seems to be little momentum toward a change of government.
The most serious blow to the DPJ is probably the failure of its ploy to draw on the power of the protest movement outside the Diet. Under the single-party pattern of policymaking, no amount of linkage with forces outside the Diet could have blocked passage of the government’s national security legislation. As a party with experience in governing, the DPJ—particularly its senior leadership—must surely have realized this.
DPJ representatives joined in the demonstrations outside the Diet, which drew citizens who had never before taken part in a protest movement, and they encouraged these people to believe in the illusion that strong opposition in the streets would make it possible to block passage of the government’s bills. But when the legislation passed, disillusioned citizens directed their support away from the DPJ to other opposition parties.
Democratic Party of Japan representatives joined in the demonstrations outside the Diet, which drew citizens who had never before taken part in a protest movement, and they encouraged these people to believe in the illusion that strong opposition in the streets would make it possible to block passage of the government’s bills. But when the legislation passed, disillusioned citizens directed their support away from the DPJ to other opposition parties. Some within the DPJ have proposed formally dissolving the existing party and starting fresh with a new name. I do not think this is a very good idea, but I do think that the party’s prospects will be dim unless its members and leaders recognize that it is their own irresponsibility—behavior inappropriate to a party that seeks to govern—that has kept the Democratic Party of Japan from making a comeback.
No Shortcut to Recovering Power
It seems to me that the only course for the DPJ to take is a return to playing the textbook role of an opposition party in a legislature under single-party rule. This means patiently and persistently debating the government’s proposals, even when doing so attracts little attention outside the Diet and seems to be producing no results over the short term.
The Democratic Party of Japan should not limit itself to delivering forceful arguments against particular bills submitted by the government but should put together comprehensive alternatives to the government’s policy line. And it should do its best to attract members of smaller opposition parties to join with it. Though this may seem like a roundabout approach, it is the only option for the top opposition party if it hopes to return to power.
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