The Birth of a Two-Party System?
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)
Media reports over the past month have stressed that the anticipated merger of the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto) and the Liberal Party (Jiyuto) is expected to bring forth long awaited changes to Japan's one-party dominated political system. Recent headlines reflecting on the merger, perhaps more correctly described as the Democratic Party of Japan's (DPJ) absorption of the Liberal Party (LP), predict the emergence of a two-party system. The most avid advocate of this view in the press has been the Asahi Shimbun, which has headlined with articles reading, "Its time to give voters a meaningful choice" (17 August) and "Gunning for the LDP" (25 July). The weekly magazine Shukan Post added its weight to this view when it published an article entitled "Coming of the two-party system" on 11 August.
While predictions of a two-party system are nothing new (J. Stockwin has been talking about this since 1991), this "merger", which will officially take place on 23 September, brings together the ‘dynamic duo' of Naoto Kan and Ichiro Ozawa (respectively, leaders of the DPJ and the LP). Taking advantage of the media frenzy surrounding their partnership, the two leaders have not shied away from making bold statements aimed at toppling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) rule. Both pledge to enact fundamental changes to the way politics is done in Japan after they "wrestle" leadership away from the LDP. As a result, the Shukan Post claims that for the first time in a long time the nation is excited about the prospects of having an alternative party to vote for. Recent history indicates that the dynamic duo could be an attractive option to an increasingly dull Koizumi.
56-year old Naoto Kan grabbed headlines during his stint as minister of health and welfare (MHW) in 1996 when he insisted on a thorough investigation of the HIV contaminated blood product disaster which infected 40% of the Japanese hemophiliac population (1,800 in total), killing 400 of them by 1997. Kan demonstrated his ability to enact change by leading the movement towards a full disclosure against the will of many MHW and LDP officials and offered the first public apology to victims on behalf of the ministry. In 1998, Kan further demonstrated his ability to influence policy when as the president of the House of Councilors he forced prime minister Obuchi to drop its plan to bail out the Long Term Credit Bank. Most recently, Kan led the drive against Koizumi's plans to dispatch the Self Defense Forces to Iraq. Although unsuccessful, his leadership on this occasion was viewed by both analysts and voters alike as coherent and in line with public sentiment. Public opinion polls now rank Kan as the sole potential challenger to Koizumi's leadership.
Ozawa (61), on the other hand, is somewhat more controversial. The career of this former LDP secretary general is characterized by his appetite for destruction. In his quest for power, he played a key role in the downfall of the LDP when his group of loyalists organized under the banner of Reform Forum 21 backed a vote of no confidence toppling the LDP's Miyazawa administration on 18 June 1993. After steeling away half of the Takeshita faction, Ozawa and Tsutomu Hata launched a new party called the Renew Party (Shinseito), which eventually joined the Hosokawa administration in August 1993 ending the LDP's 38 year rule over Japan. Less than one year later, Ozawa managed to trigger the collapse of the Hosokawa government when he was caught trying to exclude the Japan Socialist Party (then a coalition member) in his plans for a new united party under the name of Kaishin (Reform). In 1997, after forming another party (LP) Ozawa continued to engage in political maneuvers by joining the LDP led Obuchi administration as a coalition member. Today, Ozawa claims that he has changed. This "one-man show" now pledges to "serve as a foot soldier" in the new DPJ so long as he can contribute to ousting the LDP from power (Asahi, 25 July).
Are they for real?
This is the question many media sources are asking when analyzing the likelihood of Kan and Ozawa succeeding in their mission to change the government and establish a stable two party system. As mentioned earlier, Asahi is partisan to their idea. An Asahi conducted opinion poll recently reported that voters are equally divided behind the LDP and the new DPJ as their preferred party to lead the nation (Asahi, 13 August). Other articles indicate that the DPJ is expected to field 280 candidates in the 300 single member districts. In an unofficial coalition with the JSP it could potentially cover all constituencies. Furthermore, in terms of policy, the DPJ platform for reform seems far more radical and therefore potentially attractive than Koizumi's repetitive and slow moving pledges. Kan and Ozawa plan to transform Japanese politics by dissolving public corporations, easing government restrictions, and eliminating bureaucratic control over policy making. Although the prime minister's powers were enhanced significantly in 1996 when the Cabinet Reform Law gave the PM powers to initiate policy and appoint up to three advisors that have no ties with ministries, parties or factions, both Kan and Ozawa complain that Koizumi remains restrained by the Hashimoto faction and controlled by bureaucracy. As evidence they accuse the Koizumi administration as having drafted only several of the 122 bills that were passed during the last diet session.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, on the other hand, denounces the proposed DPJ /LP merger and its forthcoming "manifesto" as unrealistic. As part of their policy platform, Kan and Ozawa plan to increase funds going to small and medium sized businesses by seven times and bring out-of-pocket healthcare fees paid by company employees back down to 20% from the current 30%. Yomiuri wonders where all this money will come from. This conservative newspaper also characterizes the merger as opportunistic by arguing that the DPJ and the LP have little in common when it comes to policy matters. The Yomiuri has brought to light the fact that the LP took a different position from the DPJ on 32 bills during the recent diet session and have fundamental differences on issues such as consumption tax and SDF overseas deployment. While the LP advocates a rise in consumption tax to pay for social welfare costs, the DPJ rules out (for the moment) any hike. In terms of the SDF, the LP actively supports overseas deployment under a UN mandate, which includes the right to use force while the DPJ opposes any use of force overseas. Perhaps the most divisive factor, according to the Yomiuri, is the difference in political culture between the two parties. While the DPJ is known for its "bottom-up" decision making style, the LP clearly implements a "top-down" mechanism where Ichiro Ozawa has the final word.
Evidently, this "merger" has breathed new life into the Japanese political scene. Hopefully, renewed interest will rescue Japan from the abysmal voter turn-out rate it has experienced over the past decade. Whatever the ultimate outcome/impact of this merger, the showdown between Koizumi and the dynamic duo in the general elections, expected sometime before the end of the year, will prove entertaining. As far as fundamental changes in the way politics is done in Japan are concerned, the prognosis remains bleak considering the pervasive influence that bureaucracy, factions and big-business continue have over politicians in both parties. With many DPJ and LP members originally coming from the LDP, it remains to be seen whether or not the merged party will stand united when it comes to putting words into action.