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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (November 10, 2003)

Two-Party System Finally Emerges in Japan

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

Despite predictions of a comfortable win for the Liberal Democratic Party, the 43rd Lower House election turned out to be much more exciting than the pundits predicted. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan made spectacular gains and set Japan firmly on course towards an era of genuine two-party politics. This election also marks a decade since the LDP lost its overall majority in the 1993 election.

Pre-election opinion surveys seemed to indicate that the LDP was on target for an impressive victory. However, as soon as vote-counting started, the result began to look far less rosy. Within an hour, a gloomy-faced Shinzo Abe, Secretary-General of the LDP, was forced to concede that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would probably fail to achieve his goal of an absolute majority of 241 seats for the LDP in the 480-seat chamber. This was a bitter blow for Abe and Koizumi who had both promised their party gains. When all seats were declared, the LDP had a total of 237, down form their pre-election tally of 246. The much underrated DPJ roared ahead to end the night with an impressive figure of 177 seats, up by 40 from 137. Furthermore, the DPJ actually got more proportional seats than the LDP (72 to 69). This was the best result ever by an opposition party since the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party was formed in 1955. To find anything remotely similar, you have to go back the turbulent days of the 1958 election, when the Japan Socialist Party snatched 166 seats. Ironically, Shinzo Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was prime minister at the time.

The DPJ's gains came at the expense of the LDP and three minor parties, which all lost more than half their seats. The Social Democratic Party now only holds 6 seats (down from 18), the Japan Communist Party has been reduced to 9 (down from 20) and the New Conservative Party only retained 4 seats (down from 9). The future for this trio now looks extremely grim and they may well face extinction by the time of the next Lower House election. Both the SDP leader, Takako Doi, and the New Conservative Party leader, Hiroshi Kumagai, lost their seats. However, the veteran Doi was elected in the proportional representation block.

Besides the DPJ, the only other party to make gains was Komei-to, which worked closely with the LDP to maximize the vote of both parties. Komei-to crept up from 31 seats to 34. This modest rise should enable them to exert greater influence within the governing coalition on issues such as pension reform, retaining the pacifist constitution and Iraq policy.

While Koizumi will retain the premiership, his authority has been diminished by this poor electoral performance. Up to now, his greatest asset has been his high popularity and electoral appeal, both of which have protected him from his many party enemies. For the LDP, this election result was barely better than what Koizumi's highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, managed in 2000. Koizumi's failure to pull an electoral rabbit out of the hat will hamper the progress of his reforms and generally weaken his administration. He will also have to face the strongest opposition ever to confront an LDP prime minister.

November 2003 Lower House Election Results
Total Seats2371773496413
Single Seat168105901413

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