An expert's point of view on a current event.

Make Japan Democratic Again

The country's new opposition party wants to unseat Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Too bad that's about the only thing it agrees on.


Japan may be the world’s only liberal democracy that’s also practically a one-party state. Since coming to power in December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not only launched a radical bid to reflate Japan’s economy and pushed through legislative changes to expand the role of the armed forces overseas; he has also reversed years of progress toward a competitive two-party system. By marginalizing the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which had been unable to provide an effective alternative to his policies, Abe — as head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — brought Japan the political stability that it lacked from 2006 to 2012, when it replaced prime ministers every year.

But he also risks returning Japan to the sluggish policymaking that characterized the nearly half-century of uninterrupted LDP rule. Without a realistic threat to be unseated by an opposition party, the LDP could shrink from hard choices instead of implementing creative policies — like permitting more immigrants, for example, or fundamentally rethinking the tax system — that would help Japan cope with its long-term economic and demographic challenges.

Whether Japan moves closer or further away from LDP dominance depends to a large extent on Minshinto, a new political party founded on March 27. Officially translated as the Democratic Party, or DP, the new party is the result of a merger between the centrist DPJ and the smaller center-right Japan Innovation Party (JIP). It shares many similarities with the now-defunct DPJ, which only managed to govern Japan from 2009 to 2012. The party’s leader is ex-DPJ President Katsuya Okada, who served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in DPJ-led governments. DPJ veterans occupy most of the party’s other leadership posts, and its lawmakers dominate the parliamentary party; and the party’s opposition to collective self-defense and nuclear power differs little from the DPJ’s platform.

But the continuity with the DPJ’s personnel and policies only partly accounts for why the Japanese public has so far shown little excitement for it. Unless DP corrects for the DPJ’s inability to develop strong leaders — leaders capable of controlling the party’s priorities and its public messaging — there’s little reason to believe it will do any better than its predecessor at convincing voters that it can be trusted with power.

The DPJ had always struggled to craft a unified program. Formed in 1996 by a mix of former members of the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party, the main opposition party throughout the Cold War, the DPJ struggled to build a coherent identity. As a mix of left-wing activists, trade unionists, technocratic centrists, and national security hawks, the party fluctuated between supporting “small government” neoliberal reforms versus a more robust social safety net and between supporting stronger defense policies and constitutional revision versus preserving Japan’s lightly armed status quo. The most that the DPJ’s members have ever agreed on is their opposition to LDP rule — and even that obvious goal spurred vociferous arguments over how to achieve it.

When the DPJ took power in 2009, it won the election more because the LDP lost public trust than because the DPJ earned it. Having come into office bashing bureaucrats, the DPJ never got a firm grip on the levers of power, and it struggled to respond to domestic and international crises. It was also riven with disputes over managing the U.S.-Japan relationship and how to balance economic growth with fiscal consolidation. Consequently, the party struggled to produce sustainable growth, a task complicated by the global financial crisis and the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. For the same reasons, the DPJ also failed to slow the increase in the Japanese government’s gross debt-to-GDP ratio, which rose from 157 percent in 2008 to 202 percent by 2013. That pushed then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to raise the consumption tax rate in March 2012 — despite the party having promised not to in its 2009 election manifesto — a move that splintered the DPJ. By the time Abe drove the DPJ from power in December 2012, voters had concluded that it had been a mistake to give the party a mandate in the first place.

Since then, the DPJ has floundered. Part of the trouble is the difficultly of contending with Abe, who has enjoyed consistently high approval ratings and the support of an unusually unified ruling party. But the DPJ has done little to convince the public that its top officials deserve to rule. Its first post-2012 leader, Banri Kaieda, was incapable of unifying his party; he was so weak that he lost his own parliamentary seat in December 2014. Meanwhile, Okada failed to capitalize on public opposition to collective self-defense to boost the DPJ’s standing in 2015. It’s now clear the DP needs a new leader from among the party’s younger members.

More importantly, the DP still needs to learn how to compete with the rejuvenated Abe-led LDP. Ironically, the way forward for the party may be to learn from Abe’s successes since he returned to power in 2012. First, Abe has tightened the prime minister’s control of his party. For most of its history, the LDP has been wracked by fratricidal disputes that undermined the authority of the party’s own prime ministers. Over time, the party learned to manage these disputes by strengthening the power of party institutions at the expense of the prime minister and other leaders. But thanks to recent reforms that have strengthened Japan’s executive branch, Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga have reversed this balance of power — allowing them to set the policy agenda, distribute cabinet and party leadership posts, expand the government’s control of administrative appointments, and centralize parliamentary and electoral strategy.

With the DP’s parliamentarians spanning much of the ideological spectrum, the new party needs to strengthen its executive’s control of the party’s platform and its election strategy. It has to be able to punish dissenters and reward loyalists, relentlessly controlling the party’s message. The DPJ’s own members regularly challenged its leaders, undercutting their leadership and giving the party a reputation for unruliness. With an influx of center-right legislators from the JIP, this problem could worsen — unless the executive is able to exercise more top-down control.

No less important for the DP is crafting a unified agenda. Here, too, they can learn from Abe. The main lesson the DP should take from the prime minister’s tenure — and the DPJ’s time in power — is the overriding importance of macroeconomic policy. Economic performance is a top priority for a significant portion of the electorate. A recent poll by national broadcaster NHK found that economic policies loom large for voters ahead of this summer’s upper house elections. Asked to identify the one policy that will most influence their vote, 22 percent said that economic stimulus will be the most important issue for them and another 22 percent said social security, while 18 percent said that the consumption tax — which is scheduled to be raised in April 2017 and which could have profound implications for Japan’s economic recovery — is the most important issue.

To be successful, the DP has to offer a coherent program for combating economic stagnation and shoring up Japan’s social safety net. The program doesn’t even need to be especially popular; public opinion polls suggest voters are at best ambivalent about “Abenomics,” the prime minister’s three-pronged program of monetary easing, fiscal flexibility, and structural reform. After all, though unemployment has plunged, incomes and consumption have been sluggish, complicating the Bank of Japan’s efforts to achieve its 2 percent inflation target. Even the most notable achievement of Abenomics — record corporate profits thanks to a weak yen — is at risk, as global economic uncertainty has driven up the value of Japan’s currency and contributed to falling stock prices.

In short, there is plenty of room for the DP to attack Abe’s policies. But it has to go beyond critiquing Abenomics; Japanese voters are already aware of the program’s shortcomings. The DP needs to explain how it can succeed where Abe has failed.

Uniting around an economic program not only could bolster the party’s appeal to voters, but it could also soften some of the party’s other divisions. National security is perhaps the most divisive issue for the DP: Some members, like former Prime Minister Noda and onetime party leader Seiji Maehara, favor strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities and engaging in collective self-defense with the United States. Much of the party, however, remains skeptical about more assertive security policies, and the party’s leadership has called for repealing Abe’s security laws. Focusing on economic policy could also sidestep a destructive debate over whether the party should sharpen ideological differences with Abe or stake out a position in the political center to return to power. A substantive economic program geared at low-income households and pensioners left behind by Abenomics could enable the DP to appear as both a genuine alternative to the LDP and a responsible governing party.

Even if the DP succeeds at strengthening its leadership and honing its message, it could be several years until they can compete with the LDP in a general election. But Minshinto doesn’t need to win to make Japan better: The more the party can threaten to unseat the LDP, the likelier that it will force Japan’s longtime ruling party to tackle major and necessary reforms. There are no easy answers to Japan’s problems, but a two-party system with regular alternation in power would expand the range of possible solutions. And if the LDP fails, the DP would be ready to govern in its place.

Photo credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Correction, April 22, 2016: DP leader Katsuya Okada failed to capitalize on public opposition to collective self-defense to boost the DPJ’s standing in 2015. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said 2014. 

Tobias Harris is the economy, trade, and business fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, USA and an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk advisory firm.