The strange death of the LDP

When the Hosokawa government — with Ozawa Ichiro, then secretary-general of one of the leading parties of the eight-party coalition backing the government — passed electoral reform in 1994, one of the arguments made then and ever since by Japanese politicians (and American political scientists) was that the new mixed single-member district/proportional representation electoral system would produce a British-style two-party system that would complement the British-style administrative and political reforms desired by Ozawa and other politicians.

In other words, the Japanese political system should favor the existence of a second large party to challenge the DPJ, if not the LDP then an LDP-like successor party. But presumably the LDP should be the favorite to survive in the two-party system. By virtue of its existence — by virtue of its possessing institutional infrastructure, finances, an organizational history — the party presumably has an advantage over any party not yet born, not to mention the various micro-parties that stand virtually no chance of expanding to rival the DPJ.

And yet the LDP appears to be stumbling along to destruction. Matsuda Iwao, an LDP upper house member from Gifu prefecture, recently became the fifth LDP member of that chamber to leave the party since the LDP’s defeat last year. (Yomiuri suspects the hand of Ozawa, given Matsuda’s membership in Ozawa’s Japan Renewal and New Frontier parties during the 1990s.)

The party has failed to articulate a policy agenda to challenge the Hatoyama government’s, as suggested by the LDP’s four-day boycott of Diet budget proceedings — discussed here and here. Aside from calling for the heads of Ozawa Ichiro and Hatoyama Yukio and demanding a new election, the LDP has apparently nothing to say about the problems facing Japan.

Keidanren, an important financial backer of the LDP (2.7 billion yen in 2008, roughly ten per cent of the party’s income that year), has once again decided to suspend its political donations, a serious blow to the LDP given that its public subsidies have also shrank due to the extent of its defeat.

Most seriously, at least for the party’s current leadership, Masuzoe Yoichi, the popular former minister for health, labor, and welfare and the one party member that LDP candidates wanted to be seen with in 2009, has stepped up his criticism of party leader Tanigaki Sadakazu and other party executives. He has created a new study group with thirty members — the Economic Strategy Research Group, discussed here — but Masuzoe’s power may be less in his numbers than in his ability to discredit the party’s leaders every time he opens his mouth. Masuzoe provides a constant reminder of just how little the LDP has done to reform itself since losing last August. Indeed, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan Monday, Masuzoe identified Tanigaki as a cause of low public approval for the LDP and ann obstacle to party reform, and suggested that his resignation would open the way to reform. He did not rule out the possibility of forming a new party or a total political realignment including current DPJ members (including cabinet member Maehara Seiji).

In recent weeks party leaders have begun discussing dissolving the factions once again, an idea that flared up during the post-election leadership campaign only to die shortly after Tanigaki’s victory, but abolishing the factions — or referring to them as mere study groups — is at best a cosmetic change and at worse no change at all. The kind of changes the LDP needs to make are the changes the DPJ made over the decade leading up to its taking power: centralizing control over party administration, policymaking, and electoral strategy in a small group around the party leader, and then developing a coherent policy strategy that actually speaks to the public’s concerns.

Why has the LDP failed to reform up to this point — and why is it likely to fail to reform in the future, even if Masuzoe gets his way and forces Tanigaki out?

There is no shortage of plausible explanations. One explanation would suggest that the LDP is failing because it is not designed to exist in opposition. For all the headlines grabbed by LDP reformists over the past decade, perhaps most of the party’s members may be simply incapable of saying anything of substance to their constituents. There is no longer any public money to do the talking for them. And presumably they also have less access to the bureaucracy, which might otherwise have been able to provide them with ideas and proposals. This problem may be common to other defeated dominant parties struggling to adapt in opposition.

Another — which I think is important — is the composition of the LDP after its defeat. Namely, it has too many senior (read: former ministers) and hereditary politicians in its ranks and not enough followers, especially of the reformist variety. The LDP members who survived 2009 showed that they can get reelected on the strength of their own names and campaign organizations. They owe little to the party headquarters, and, one would assume, they would be less likely to support efforts to centralize control of the party.

A further explanation might consider the role played by the LDP’s policy ideas. In this argument, the LDP’s internal organization is not irrelevant — the party’s organization, after all, has some control of what’s included in the party’s platform and more generally what narrative the party tells in public — but the more important factor may be the balance of power among ideological camps within the LDP. As noted, Masuzoe has the popularity, but not the numbers within the party (and I find it odd that Masuzoe, who was a critic of Koizumi’s “neo-liberal” reforms, is now the face for continuing those reforms). Similarly, the revisionist conservative wing may also lack the numbers — there was some overlap with the Koizumi Children, after all — and its surviving leaders are intimately associated with the LDP’s downfall. That leaves the pragmatists, the party leaders who are at once the most flexible and pragmatic in policy terms and also the most wedded to existing party structures. At the same time, the LDP faces the same dilemmas facing any party in opposition in a (mostly) two-party system. Should it copy the governing party’s policies and serve as the well-meaning critic in opposition? Or should it adopt a rejectionist pose and rail about the good old days before the DPJ took power? Koizumi’s ambiguous legacy as party leader, not to mention the failures of its last prime ministers, makes the latter option difficult, and the LDP seems simply incapable of adopting the former approach. The result is that attacking Hatoyama and Ozawa on the seiji to kane issue appears to be the default option, the problem being that the public doesn’t particularly care about money politics relative to other issues, especially when the LDP is the messenger.

Finally, the LDP may be failing to reform for precisely the reason suggested by Masuzoe: Tanigaki is simply not up to the task, being little more than a placeholder upon whom the faction leaders could agree when the party was in chaos following the electoral defeat. It seems dubious that Tanigaki is the primary cause of frustrated reform, but he is certainly not helping the process along.

In short, while it is easy to assume that organizations do whatever necessary to ensure their survival in their environments, making the changes necessary for survival is easier said than done. It may be the case that the survival imperative of individual LDP politicians is trumping the organizational imperative to survive. The LDP’s days appear to be numbered, especially if Masuzoe decides that the party is not worth saving.

Whether Masuzoe could build a second party around his splitists, Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party, and whoever they could coax from the DPJ is an open question. Theories about the effect of the electoral system would predict that Masuzoe’s bid would be successful, but the LDP’s woeful performance post-election suggests that nothing is for certain. Showing up is not enough: the second party actually has to make the right decisions too. Perhaps Masuzoe, helped by his personal popularity, will make the right decisions and be rewarded with public support and numerous prospective candidates from which to choose. Perhaps he might even draw some DPJ members to a new party.

ON this last question, I suspect that despite the mass media’s longing for another political realignment, DPJ reformists close to Masuzoe have greater incentives to exercise voice within the DPJ — given that the party is in government — rather than to exit and join Masuzoe in opposition. In other words, I expect that one consequence of Masuzoe’s departure from the LDP would be a rebellion within the DPJ to replace Hatoyama led by the party members most likely to join with Masuzoe — potentially a successful rebellion were the emergence of a Masuzoe New Party to make enough Hatoyama allies nervous about the new rival.

If Masuzoe cannot break the DPJ, the result could be an unusual party system, with the DPJ joined by a rump LDP, a rising but struggling reformist party, and the other smaller parties, including its two coalition partners.

What seems certain is that the LDP will be unable to reverse its decline. The party that seemed uniquely suited to governing may simply be unable to survive an extended period in opposition. Even a good showing in the upper house election this summer — by no means guaranteed — could be negated should Komeito, the LDP’s erstwhile partner, continue to move closer to the DPJ.

7 thoughts on “The strange death of the LDP

  1. The surviving LDP members may not only give priority to their own careers over the LDP, they may actively prefer a weakened LDP – a convenient umbrella organization to collect political funds and with enough of a brand name to help them along, but without the power to actually rein them in and and control the political course of the party.


  2. Although the UK does have alternating governments, parties rarely lose powqer after a single election. Thus four conservative victories under Thatcher and major were followed by three Labour victories under Blair. It may be too early to write off the LDP but one might not see them to return to power until about 2025 – by which time they will not be led by the current generation of senior politicans


  3. Anonymous

    \”Another — which I think is important — is the composition of the LDP after its defeat. Namely, it has too many senior (read: former ministers) and hereditary politicians in its ranks and not enough followers, especially of the reformist variety.\”in an earlier post you said:\”I am still unconvinced that hereditary leaders are any better or worse than non-hereditary politicians.\”Could you explain that a bit more? And why do you believe that the lack of followers is a problem now for the LDP? This has already been a problem for younger, more pragmatic LDP members before the DPJ came to power.


  4. Anonymous

    The more I think/read about this, the more it appears to me that the LDP is destined to be nothing more than a party that will exist as a form of pension scheme that instead of paying out a marginal amount of money will pay out the leftovers from the 1955 system in the form of a marginal amount of political power. Thanks for your hard work, but, you are not quite up to the task anymore….


  5. Anonymous,In that earlier post, I simply meant in terms of their political/leadership skills. Many argue that hereditary politicians are simply less adept as politicians, which I don't think is as obvious as some think it is (or at the very least I need to see more systematic evidence of what makes a politician good or bad).When it comes to centralizing party management, however, hereditary politicians are trouble, because almost by definition they are elected on the basis of their names and inherited political organizations — and not the party's name and policy platform.


  6. Anonymous

    I would say, this is probably the best post you've written. Cuts to the chase very well. Especially for non Brits or non-parlimentary style Govts readers.The LDP do appear destined for the same fall from grace as the conservatives in '97…and as Dr.Blah notes, may not even get to power unti 2025-ish! (We live in hope)


  7. What I miss is, not analyses on the Japanese political parties per se, but what is the benefit from everything for the ordinary Japanese tax-payer?Why do you or any else avoid commenting the ever-increasing indebtness only to promote some manifesto? Why should Hatoyama stick to it so much – you got elected, revise it at least cosmetically, do not follow it blindly?Why is the public so tolerant to the growing number of money-related incidents with DPJ members and DPJ is so slow to react?On a personnel note,why there is such overjoy over any other of LDP setbacks? Were you ever hurt/abused by any of them one form or another?.


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