Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Are We Any Closer to a Two-Party System?
FUKUHARA Koichi  / former Professor of Iwate University

December 24, 2003
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won the general election in November with an absolute majority. The Democratic Party, while losing the election, advanced significantly by adding 40 seats and exceeding the LDP by 1.4 million votes in proportional representation. Taken together with the defeat of the Communist Party, Social Democratic Party and New Conservative Party, many view the results favorably, claiming we have gotten that much closer to a two-party political system. But it is premature to draw such a conclusion on these election results.

First of all, many of the LDP members elected in the single-seat constituencies depended on the support of the Komeito Party, without which the LDP would not have been able to remain in power. A situation in which the third-largest party backed by a powerful religious organization and systematic voting practices holds the casting vote is hardly the image of a two-party political system.

Secondly, by launching a "Manifesto" campaign of political agendas the Democratic Party may have succeeded in presenting the election as one in which voters must "choose a political system." However, the LDP was vague in its campaign promises on important issues including road construction, the pension system and budget allocation to local governments, and as soon as elections were over, differences between the Prime Minister and LDP legislators became apparent in the process of formulating a supplementary budget. Then again, although on the offensive, whether the Democratic Party will be able to maintain internal unity once time comes to actually implementing its policies is extremely suspect.

Above all, the fact that voter turnout was the second-lowest on post-World War II record is a clear indication that the Democratic Party's slogan of "choosing a political system" failed to win the enthusiastic sympathy or support of voters.

In Japan, a change of government between two major political parties as in the American and British systems is considered an ideal form of democratic politics, but it is a dream that has yet to materialize half a century after the enactment of the present Constitution.

The "1955 System" that came into being as a result of the unification of the Socialist Party and amalgamation of the conservative camp clearly defined the structure of two-party confrontation that pitted conservatives against reformists. However, in terms of the balance of power, the Socialist Party actually reached its peak in the general elections of 1958, where it won 166 seats against the LDP’s 287, and the reality of the system was described variously as a "1.5-party system," "multi-party opposition" and "single-party domination."

The collapse of the "1955 System" in 1993 and subsequent formation of the non-LDP coalition government of Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro were followed by a series of experimental combinations in government coalitions. During this period, the New Frontier Party advanced in the Upper House elections in 1995, closing in on the LDP by winning 40 seats against the LDP's 46, only to retreat to 156 seats against the LDP's 239 in the Lower House Elections in 1996 and was dissolved the following year due to political infighting.

Any political party that is too hasty in expanding popular support to catch up with the LDP risks diluting the integrity and character of its principles and policies, and end up imploding as its internal unity is compromised. Under a cultural climate that favors consensus over confrontation and settling for gradual change, it may be possible to shake the foundations of "single-party dominance," though toppling such a system would be difficult indeed.

In a multilateral society characterized by diverse values and entangled interests, the benefits of a political system responsive to popular opinion as well as being flexible should rather be expected of a coalition government, and the current coalition government between the LDP and Komeito may well be a typical success case.

Public focus nevertheless remains on a two-party system due to a longing for a more powerful and stable political power that would lead the reforms under severe internal and external circumstances. At the same time, it is significant that the dual voting system of single-seat constituencies and proportional representation introduced in 1996 proved its effectiveness in concentrating votes to major parties, propelling the Democratic Party to prominence.

The opportunity for change in Japanese politics will arrive only when the Democratic Party solidifies its new footing and manages to present voters with persuasive policies on issues such as constitutional reform, the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance, the system of local government and reforms in the taxation, budget and financial systems that will arise during the Upper House elections next summer through the next general election, along with attractive candidates.

The writer is former Professor of Iwate University and former Chief Editorial Writer of Kyodo News Agency.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

福原亨一 / 元岩手大学教授

2003年 12月 24日











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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Are We Any Closer to a Two-Party System?