Seats Reserved: Political Upheaval in Japan

By Lee, Hana | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Seats Reserved: Political Upheaval in Japan


Lee, Hana, Harvard International Review


For nearly 50 years after post-World War II political reform, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has enjoyed a monopoly over Japanese politics. Despite corruption scandals associated with party leaders and the economic recession of the 1990s, the LDP retains a majority of seats in the Diet and controls the Prime Minister's office, held by LDP President Junichiro Koizumi. However, the results of the November 2003 general elections presage changes for the party system in Japan, as the LDP and its coalition partners managed only a slim margin over the Democratic Party. The election results have convinced many observers that Japan is finally on its way to a genuine two-party system. In fact, a viable political opposition to the LDP may be exactly what Japan needs to realize effective political and economic reforms.

The Japanese government has seen a gradual trend of increasing political competition and reform over the past decade. In post-war Japan, the LDP controlled the Diet without any major political opposition, due to the huge economic growth of the period. The turning point came in the elections of 1993, when a coalition of new parties formed by disillusioned LDP members, such as the New Party Sakigake and the Japan Renewal Party, ousted the LDP. Although the LDP quickly regained control of the Diet with the next election in 1996, the emergence of new parties forced it to enter coalitions to stay in power. In April 2001, the LDP responded to its declining popularity by holding primary elections for its party president for the first time. Junichiro Koizumi, who had remained with the LDP despite his image as a self-declared reformer, became the new LDP leader.

In light of these trends of waning LDP influence, the results of the November 10, 2003, general elections are a promising sign. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Naoto Kan, merged with Ichiro Ozawa's Liberal Party, creating a large and visible opposition party. The DPJ also organized a policy-based challenge by creating a written "manifesto" of its proposals and timetables for reform, a first in Japan for a national election. This forced Koizumi to release his own reform agenda and brought policy issues to the center of political debate. The LDP emerged from the elections with 4 seats short of the 241 required for a majority presence in the Diet. With coalition partners, the LDP still controls the Diet, but the 177 seats won by the DPJ have weakened its hold. According to surveys conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the DPJ was much more successful than the LDP at garnering the support of unaffiliated voters.

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