New Prime Minister: How Japan’s Political System Works


Fumio Kishida is the next Prime Minister of Japan after winning the leadership race of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Japan
Image Credit: Muhammed Nahas / Gulf News

When people think of elections these days, they tend to look to Russia or Iran. But in Japan, a parliamentary democracy and the world’s third-largest economy, the same party has governed for all but four years since 1955, and most expect it to win the scheduled general election by the end of November.

So when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose a successor to Yoshihide Suga, it appointed Fumio Kishida the prime minister who will lead Japan into the new year.

But why, in a country with free elections, where voters have expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the coronavirus and the Olympics, can the Liberal Democratic Party remain so confident in victory?

The Liberal Democrats try to be everything for everyone.

The party was formed in 1955, three years after the end of the post-war US occupation of Japan. However, the United States participated in its gestation.

Fearing that Japan, which had a growing leftist labor movement, might be drawn into the Communist orbit, the CIA urged several rival conservative factions to unite.

“They didn’t necessarily like or get along, but they were designed to be a mega-party,” said Nick Kapur, associate professor of history at Rutgers University.

The new Liberal Democratic Party oversaw Japan’s rapid growth during the 1960s and 1970s, which helped consolidate its power. And over the decades it has evolved into a big tent, as evidenced by the candidates vying for the top spot in the party.

Sanae Takaichi, 60, a die-hard conservative. Fumio Kishida, 64, a moderate who speaks of a “new capitalism”. Seiko Noda, 61, who supports greater rights for women and other groups. Taro Kono, 58, who wants to get out of nuclear power. (Fumio Kishida won the LDP leadership race, putting him on track to become the next prime minister).

Such a variation helps to explain the longevity of the Liberal Democrats. If voters tire of one version of the party, it swings in another direction. Party leaders have also skillfully picked up political ideas from the opposition.

A crushing victory

A dozen years ago, the opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan, won a landslide victory. This was only the second time the Liberal Democrats have lost. But it turned out voters weren’t ready for so many changes.

The new government has said it will break the “iron triangle” between the Liberal Democrats, the bureaucracy and special interests. While voters have acknowledged problems with this arrangement, “they generally appreciate the competent bureaucracy,” said Shinju Fujihira, executive director of the US-Japan Relations Program at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

The Democrats’ promise to shut down a US base in Okinawa has also proved difficult to keep. They chatted about a plan to increase a consumption tax, and they pushed for a strong yen and cuts in infrastructure spending, policies that have hampered economic growth.

Then came the Fukushima nuclear fusion in 2011, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami. The government’s mismanagement of the disaster sealed the public’s impression of a clumsy party, and the opposition has struggled to recover since.

In recent years, the Democratic Party has split and new opposition parties have formed, making it more difficult for any of them to capture the attention of voters.

The opposition’s brief stint in power “left a major scar,” said Mireya Solis, co-director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

Stay in power

Since 1999, the Liberal Democrats have partnered with another party, the Komeito, which has helped them stay in power.

The Komeito is the political arm of a religious movement, the Soka Gakkai, founded in the 1960s and which can regularly deliver a bloc of votes.

In Japan’s bifurcated electoral system, voters choose an individual candidate in some districts and choose a party’s list of candidates in others. The Liberal Democrats and the Komeito strategically choose where to support candidates, effectively exchanging votes.

The parties are a strange pair: the dominant liberal-democratic policy is hawkish on strengthening Japan’s military capabilities, while the Komeito is much less so.

But Komeito knows that the partnership has pragmatic advantages.

“In order to maintain power, if you continue to insist only on your own ideologies, it will not work,” said Hisashi Inatsu, member of the Komeito parliament from Hokkaido, who said the Liberal Democratic Party had it. supported in three elections.

There may also be financial incentives for such an exchange of votes.

Voter apathy

In many ways, the Liberal Democrats benefit from voter apathy.

When the party suffered its rare loss in 2009, the turnout was 69%. When he returned to power in 2012, less than 60% of voters turned out.

The independents do not see much to vote.

Inertia is powerful in a country where trains run on time, everyone has access to healthcare, and now an initially slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has started to overtake those in other wealthy countries.

“It’s not that great right now, but it could have been worse,” said Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. “’Stay the course’ doesn’t sound so unappealing to a lot of people. “

Motoko Rich specializes in Japanese politics, society, gender and the arts.

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