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The Bright Side of Japan’s Bleak Election

The country has reverted to de facto one-party rule. But there are signs that Japan's democracy is not dead yet.

Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images

On paper, it looks like Japan’s October 22 general election was more of the same. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, Komeito, went into the election with a supermajority in the House of Representatives, and emerged with that supermajority intact for a second straight election. Voters, facing a choice between a prime minister most do not trust and opposition parties they do not support, stayed home in near-record numbers, with turnout rising only one percentage point higher than the record low of 52.66 percent set in 2014. For Abe, it was a victory by default, the latest evidence that Japanese democracy remains hobbled by a lack of actual democratic choice.

But though the election cemented the ruling coalition’s dominance for the foreseeable future, extending a run of virtual one-party rule that has been broken only twice in the postwar era, it could also prove to be a turning point for Japan. Abe’s decision to call an early election inadvertently revealed that there is a genuine desire for a party that is unapologetically liberal and willing to part with the LDP consensus on a host of issues, most notably its desire to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution.

During the 2000s, Japan flirted with two-party democracy. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), founded in the late 1990s by survivors of reformist parties that had broken with the LDP, as well as by former members of the LDP’s longtime rival the Japan Socialist Party, coalesced and gradually made inroads against the LDP. By 2007, it bested the LDP for control of the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Diet; by 2009, helped by the global financial crisis and a series of lackluster LDP prime ministers, voters decided they could trust the DPJ with power. Thanks to a surge in voter turnout, the DPJ won a postwar record of 308 seats in the House of Representatives and, for the first time since its founding in 1955, the LDP was no longer Japan’s largest party.

From the moment it took power, however, everything went wrong. The DPJ-led government struggled to implement reforms to Japan’s sclerotic bureaucracy; backtracked on high-profile promises regarding U.S. military bases in Okinawa and Japan’s controversial consumption tax; and struggled to manage the aftermath of the “triple disasters” of March 2011: the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region, and the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. By the time the DPJ faced voters again in December 2012, its defeat was a foregone conclusion.

Back in opposition, the party never recovered. It suffered defections and reunited with former defectors. It changed its name, going from the DPJ to just the Democratic Party (after briefly considering the Democratic Innovation Party, or DIP). It debated an alliance with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). It cycled through four party leaders in five years. And it struggled to determine how to oppose Prime Minister Abe, who has enjoyed high approval ratings but has also pursued often unpopular policies. Through it all, its support remained in the single digits, and it was unable to stop the LDP from winning another general election in 2014 and upper house elections in 2013 and 2016. The predominantly two-party system had degenerated into a “one strong, many weak” party system.

It was precisely the Democratic Party’s weakness that tempted Abe to call a snap election on September 25, a year before the end of the House of Representatives’ four-year term. But instead of facing the ineffectual Democrats, Abe’s decision effectively triggered the party’s demise. Facing certain defeat again, Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara threw in his lot with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, a former LDP lawmaker who had defied the LDP to win the governorship in 2016, then defied it again when she defeated its Tokyo chapter to win control of Tokyo’s legislative assembly in July. Days after Abe announced the election—and after Koike announced that she would lead a new party called the Party of Hope—Maehara shocked his party by announcing that the Democratic Party would endorse no candidates in the general election and would instead encourage its candidates to seek Koike’s endorsement.

It was a marriage of convenience. Koike would get a pool of well-funded, experienced candidates, giving her new party the numbers to at least threaten the LDP’s majority. Maehara and his Democrats would get a new lease on life under the leadership of a charismatic politician considered a strong contender to become Japan’s first female prime minister.

Despite the hype that greeted Hope’s creation, however, the party flopped. This may have been because of Koike’s surprise decision not to stand in the general election; without Koike, the new party lacked a candidate for prime minister (who must be a Diet member) and was too easily associated with the old Democratic Party (Abe likened it to a restaurant changing its name after a food poisoning incident). Or it may have been because voters simply did not want what Koike called “reform conservatism.” Either way, the Party of Hope fell far short of expectations and finished a distant third with 50 seats. The party’s performance was particularly poor in Tokyo, despite Koike’s recent successes in the capital, winning only one of its 25 districts (and failing to win Koike’s old Diet seat). Post-election recriminations suggest that the Party of Hope’s survival is far from assured.

Instead, it may turn out that Koike and the Party of Hope’s most enduring legacy is its supporting role in the creation of a second Democratic offshoot, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP). When Maehara announced that the Democratic Party would join forces with the Party of Hope, members of his party’s liberal wing were effectively orphaned. Koike made clear that she would exclude Democrats unwilling to accept several of her party’s more conservative planks, including a commitment to the revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution and acceptance of a set of laws in 2015 that made it possible for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to come to the aid of allied forces. For many liberals, these conditions were anathema, but without the institutional backing of a party they faced annihilation in the impending election.

They were rescued when Yukio Edano, best known as the spokesman for the Japanese government during the Fukushima crisis, announced the formation of the CDP on October 2. The CDP attracted fewer ex-Democrats than the Party of Hope—it would go into the election with only 15 incumbents—and ran significantly fewer candidates, 78 to Hope’s 235. Unlike Hope, which shares numerous beliefs with Abe and the LDP and has occasionally hinted at a willingness to join the LDP in a coalition, Edano offered uncompromising opposition to the Abe administration, particularly to Abe’s push to revise the constitution and build a security state.

In his stump speeches, he also called for revitalizing Japan’s democracy, framing the election as a choice between top-down politics and bottom-up grassroots democracy and demanding greater transparency and respect for individual rights. Finally, Edano cemented an alliance with the Communists that the Democratic Party had struggled to forge, giving dozens of CDP candidates the opportunity to consolidate the opposition vote in closely contested constituencies.

This platform proved attractive both to former supporters of the Democratic Party as well as to independents, whose support is essential if the LDP is to be defeated. (Yoshiro Mori, a former LDP prime minister, infamously said, “It would be good if floating voters go to sleep [at election time].”) No less important for a new party founded a week before the beginning of an election campaign, the CDP proved adept at using social media to build its brand to an extent not seen before in Japanese politics. Within days, the CDP’s Twitter account had more followers than any other Japanese party, including the LDP. The party’s social media presence helped it attract volunteers, who gave the CDP enthusiastic foot soldiers for the compressed twelve-day campaign.

As a result, Japan’s second new opposition party surged past the Party of Hope and gained 40 seats to become the largest opposition party, albeit significantly behind the LDP.

Beyond having to contend with a dominant LDP and a bolstered Abe, the CDP has significant issues to address. It must deal with ex-Democratic Party members who ran as independents instead of joining the CDP or Hope, as well as the Democratic Party’s caucus in the upper house. It has to figure out how it can raise money, build a national infrastructure, and recruit candidates for both national and local offices. Above all, it must flesh out its policy platform.

As the DPJ’s rise in the early 2000s suggests, it could take years for the CDP to resolve these issues and begin earning the trust of skeptical voters. The CDP may also have to overcome the lingering memories of the DPJ’s time in power. But if the CDP can remain ideologically cohesive and focused on grassroots mobilization, it stands a better chance of becoming Japan’s second major party than the DPJ did after its return to opposition.

The party is fortunate in that Abe is not as strong as he appears. Despite the ruling coalition’s victory, the prime minister’s reputation has been marred by allegations that the government performed favors for Abe’s friends and associates, which caused the Abe cabinet’s approval ratings to plummet during the summer. Exit polls showed that a majority of voters said they did not trust Abe, including nearly 70 percent of unaffiliated voters. Meanwhile, the cabinet’s approval ratings began falling again during the campaign and it is not certain that it will receive much of a boost from the election.

Finally, Abe’s determination to use his supermajorities in both houses of the Diet to pass constitutional amendments, including modest changes to Article 9, the constitution’s “peace” clause, could be a gift to the CDP as it finds its footing. According to the constitution, an amendment that has been approved by the Diet must then be approved by a majority of the public in a national referendum. Polls suggest that it could be difficult for Abe’s proposed changes, especially to Article 9, to win the necessary support from voters. The emergence of the CDP could make it impossible. The CDP could not only offer dogged resistance to revision in parliamentary deliberations, but also establish itself as a leader in a “no” campaign, in which its social media presence and volunteer network would be extremely valuable. The old Democratic Party, divided between anti-revision liberals and pro-revision conservatives, would never have been able to play such a role.

The sheer numbers suggest that Abe’s risky bid to secure a new majority succeeded. But by hastening the demise of the Democratic Party, the prime minister may have inadvertently midwifed the birth of a new second major party. The CDP has a long way to go before voters will trust it with power, but there is at least some reason to hope for more vibrant political competition in Japan.