The limits of Japan’s bipartisan moment

With diminishing prospects for a general election before July and no signs of another attempt to form an LDP-DPJ grand coalition, Japanese politics appear to have entered a bipartisan phase.

The most prominent symbol of this moment is the Sentaku movement, which, according to Yomiuri, may ultimately include between fifty and sixty members of the HR and HC, in addition to prefectural and local officials. Another sign is the bipartisan Diet reform group mentioned in this post.

Will Japan’s new bipartisanship (or tri-partisanship, with the participation of Komeito) produce any tangible results, or is it the product of frustrations with the nejire kokkai that will fizzle out once a general election nears and both the LDP and the DPJ return to full-time campaigning?

This moment is a natural response to the divided Diet: cooperation short of a coalition government, as policy entrepreneurs in both parties search for allies in an attempt to move their issues (Diet reform, decentralization) to the forefront of political discussion.

I’m skeptical that a small cadre of Diet members and their allies in prefectural governments will be able to halt the emergence of a two-party system. The movement might be able to shift the agenda somewhat, not least because it is unclear exactly what agenda the Fukuda government will pursue in the second half of the current Diet session. Beyond that, however, they will run firmly into the twin walls that are the DPJ’s imperative to oppose the government and differentiate itself from the LDP, and the LDP’s imperative to shore up its support in rural Japan in advance of a general election.

On that point, I have a hard time seeing how the LDP could give its full support to Sentaku‘s decentralization proposals. Fiscal centralization has been a pillar of LDP rule — it has helped elect LDP officials in local and prefectural elections, as they would have better access to the LDP-controlled trough in Tokyo. Radical decentralization would likely be the final blow against LDP rule, breaking the pipeline between the parliamentary and prefectural LDPs and introducing more political competition into local politics. In that event, the DPJ’s small breakthrough in last April’s local elections would be the beginning of a major shift in local governance, which would in turn strengthen its position in national politics.

Accordingly, the impact of the new bipartisanship will be marginal at best.

If the Sentaku movement is the germ of a new party, its significance might be greater, but in becoming a new party, it faces an entirely different set of obstacles. As Ito Atsuo, a veteran of the political upheaval of the 1990s, writes in the March issue of Chuo Koron, new parties face considerable barriers, starting with the collection of members and money. However, one advantage that Sentaku would have as a party is that unlike many of the new parties that formed during the 1990s, it would be comprised of more than just Diet member defectors from other parties — it would be able to draw on support at the prefectural and local levels, giving it a more formidable presence. That said, as is the case with Hiranuma Takeo’s mooted “true” conservative party, I don’t expect a new partisan realignment until after a general election, if then.

And besides, should a desire to find a “nonpartisan” agenda on the part of some LDP and DPJ Diet members be interpreted as a sign of their willingness to defect?

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