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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (October 11, 2002)

The LDP Continues to Defy Political Gravity: Is the Opposition Flawed?

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A political tenet of the legendary British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that "No government can long be secure without a formidable opposition." Apparently disobeying this sound political logic, the long reign of the Liberal Democratic Party seems to indicate that Disraeli's hypothesis may have been incorrect. October 2002 opinion polls reinforce this impression, showing that the Koizumi Cabinet has a healthy 64% approval rating while the LDP itself is supported by 31% of the electorate. At present, the polls record that there is no serious opposition threat in sight. The Democratic Party of Japan scrapped up just 7% with the other parties registering somewhere between 4% to 3%. If this is all the opposition can muster when the country is suffering a dire economic crisis, one has to wonder if the LDP will not continue to defy political gravity for some time to come. Does this situation disprove Disraeli's theorem and mean that Japanese opposition parties are fundamentally flawed or is there another explanation?

Currently, the DPJ are busy squabbling amongst themselves about the party leadership while the Social Democratic Party are having to make highly embarrassing apologies for previously denying the existence of abductions to North Korean. At the moment, these parties could hardly be described as "formidable", unless one counts their phenomenal ability to inflict enormous damage on themselves. Of course, it was not always like this and the opposition has seen much better days. In fact, the brief period of non-LDP rule in the early nineties is still warmly remembered, even if it now seems almost like an aberration.

When I was studying Japan back in the eighties, I vividly recall our professors confidently predicting that the Liberal Democratic Party's days in power were numbered. During the eighties, the opposition Socialist Party had been gradually gaining ground in each election and we were informed that at some unspecified point in the future, the LDP would eventually lose to its political nemesis. Of course, there were some critical policy obstacles the Socialist Party would have to overcome before taking the reins of power. Nevertheless, our professors assured us that the dynamics of democracy dictated that one day the LDP would lose to an increasing effective opposition. At the time, Sweden offered a good political model to justify the Japan scenario. The Swedish Social Democratic Party had been in power, either alone or in a coalition, for most of the period from 1932 to 1976, but was out of office between 1976 to 1981. If the fractious Swedish opposition could snatch power for a few years from the mighty Social Democratic Party, then so too could the opponents of the LDP.

It took a little longer than my professors predicted, but eventually the inevitable actually happened in August 1993. Opposition parties largely made up of former LDP lawmakers along with the unreconstructed Socialist Party finally succeeded in toppling the LDP. The affable Morihiro Hosokawa became the first non-LDP Prime Minister since 1955. It finally seemed that Japanese politics had come of age and a new era was dawning.

Hosokawa cut an impressive political figure, especially in comparison to his uninspiring LDP predecessor, the hapless Kiichi Miyazawa. Hosokawa seemed to have a clear vision of where he wanted to take Japan, promising to clean up politics and reform the country. His straightforward political manner was refreshingly different from that of his predecessors and he once told me over dinner that President Bill Clinton had been visibly taken aback by his forthright negotiating style. American politicians did not expect Japanese Prime Ministers to be so direct. Political horse-trading meant that Hosokawa had to relinquish office in April 1994 after just nine months in power. His successor, the unlucky Tsutomu Hata, barely last nine weeks in the post before an LDP coalition returned to power on 29 June 1994.

In a breathtakingly shameless move that would have even astounded Niccolo Machiavelli, the LDP miraculously persuaded their mortal political foes to assist them back into office. Thus, one of the most improbable and unholy coalitions in modern political history was formed. As a reward for betraying every single principle they ever stood for, the Socialist Party leader, Tomiichi Murayama, was allowed to take the premiership for a year and a half until the LDP felt secure enough to discard him and his party. This swift return to power confirmed the LDP's position as one of the most formidable political machines of modern times, rivaled only by Sweden's recently re-elected Social Democratic Party.

Since regaining power, the LDP has struggled hard to maintain its position. During the immensely unpopular 2000-2001 administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, it seemed the party had lost its way again. There was a national yearning for another Hosokawa like figure to take the country's helm. However, the LDP rank and file membership had learnt a valuable lesson from its past defeat. In a brilliant political conjuring trick, they managed to respond to the national mood by electing their own version of Hosokawa in the form of Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi used the same language as Hosokawa, promising a new style of politics, reform and an end to the despised ways of the LDP. Koizumi effectively transformed himself into the leader of the opposition and anti-LDP forces. Amazingly, this strategy was enormously successful and completely robbed the opposition of all momentum. Today, Koizumi is still masterfully pretending to be the leader of an anti-LDP Cabinet. Obligingly, LDP grandees like former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone speak of him in terms normally reserved only for leaders of other parties. Unlike Hosokawa, Koizumi has the weight of the LDP to sustain his pseudo-opposition administration.

By making themselves their own most formidable opposition, the LDP have for the moment totally neutralized their political rivals. Therefore, they have not actually disproved Benjamin Disraeli's political analysis, but have instead found a temporary means around it. However, this illusion cannot be sustained indefinitely, which means that the actual opposition should redouble its efforts to offer a viable alternative to LDP dominion. What both the Hosokawa and Koizumi administrations clearly demonstrate is that the Japanese electorate are longing for change and willing to support anyone who they genuinely believe can give it to them. The opposition must never lose sight of this fact, otherwise they will be doing a great disservice to the Japanese people as well as themselves.

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