Was the coalition doomed from the start?

On Friday, Fukushima Mizuho, the head of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, refused to bow to the prime minister’s decision to accept a modified version of the 2006 realignment agreement, forcing the prime minister to dismiss her from her position as minister responsible for consumer affairs.
Not surprisingly, on Sunday the SDPJ decided that it would leave the coalition, although it suggested that electoral cooperation in the upcoming upper house election is still possible. The DPJ still holds a slim majority in the upper house with the PNP — perhaps thanks to the work of the “devil” — and will undoubtedly press harder to get its legislation passed without having to extend the current Diet session.
Jun Okumura questions whether electoral cooperation is the wisest decision for its survival “as an anti-business, anti-Japan-US alliance protest party.” In this statement, of course, one sees the problem with the coalition between the DPJ and the SDPJ. With 308 seats — including 221 of 300 single-member districts — in the House of Representatives, electoral dynamics suggest that the DPJ would drift to the center once in power, as it needs to maintain pluralities in as many districts as possible. In this sense, perhaps the only surprising thing about the Hatoyama government’s embrace of the old agreement is that it tried so hard and so long to find an alternative to accommodation. Some might say that the DPJ is becoming the old LDP, although I don’t think that’s a particularly meaningful assessment: Futenma, and Ozawa’s courtship of old LDP interest groups notwithstanding, the DPJ’s priorities and identity remain distinct. If the LDP and the DPJ increasingly resemble each other (and if the LDP survives), it is because survival in a political system dominated by nonaligned voters will produces moves to the center in order to satisfy as many floating voters as possible, combined with rhetorical and symbolical gestures to distinguish one from the other.
The SDPJ is in wholly different circumstances. The party has only seven seats in the lower house, four from proportional blocs and three from single-member districts. One of those three — Teruya Kantoku — is from Okinawa’s second district. As a marginal party, the SDPJ’s survival depends on offering something unique to a narrow slice of core supporters, in this case left-wing ideologues who share its commitment to reducing the US presence in Japan, resisting revision of the constitution, and resisting growing inequality. While on paper there appears to be some basis for cooperation between the SDPJ and the DPJ, the reality is that for the DPJ compromise is indispensable (for large parties, manifestos, one might say, are made to be broken), while for the SDPJ its survival depends on rigid adherence to its principles and promises. Had the LDP not fallen into such disarray, the coalition might have survived a bit longer in mutual resistance to a convenient enemy, but the electoral dynamics of the coalition seem to have doomed the partnership in advance.
Electoral dynamics were compounded by the SDPJ’s history. The old Socialist Party virtually broke itself by compromising its principles on the security alliance and the SDF to form a coalition with the LDP in 1994. That choice may have been the result of the party’s failure to recognize that the JSP was becoming a marginal ideological party even before electoral reform: in 1993, the party actually lost 66 seats, most of them to the LDP splinter parties that would form the non-LDP coalition after the election. In other words, having betrayed its core supporters on the alliance once before, it was extremely unlikely that Fukushima would act differently than she did.
In short, Fukushima had to reject the prime minister’s compromise on account of the past, present, and future of the SDPJ. The party’s future is still precarious — it is not immediately clear which party gains more from electoral cooperation without cooperation in government — but having stood on principle, the SDPJ should have an easier time maintaining its electoral base.

9 thoughts on “Was the coalition doomed from the start?

  1. PaxAmericana

    Maybe the coalition was doomed from the start, but the break-up might have taken a lot longer if the DPJ had at least moved a little in terms of lessening the US military embrace over Japan and Okinawa – or at least some credible promise for the future. Of course, things may get very interesting over the next couple of years, what with a global financial mess and the difficulties of actually getting anything implemented in Okinawa. Speaking of which, how will the US respond if nothing gets done on the agreement?


  2. Fat Tony

    \”As a marginal party, the SDPJ's survival depends on offering something unique to a narrow slice of core supporters, in this case left-wing ideologues…\”And, perhaps, Okinawans now.\”That choice may have been the result of the party's failure to recognize that the JSP was becoming a marginal ideological party even before electoral reform\”Hard to say. Under Takako Doi, the party was reforming before 1993 and actually picked up noticeable vote share. The \”choice\” was the result of pressure from the Cabinet Legislation Bureau to make the statement \”because that was what was in the interests of Japan\” and a confused, inexperienced party leader not knowing what to do. Switch \”CLB\” with \”foreign military explaining what deterrence is\” and things sound somewhat familiar.\”Just one more piece of evidence that presidential systems are better than parliamentary systems.\”Health care anyone? Or will that be after the Supreme Court decides who our head of state is?


  3. \”As a marginal party, the SDPJ's survival depends on offering something unique to a narrow slice of core supporters, in this case left-wing ideologues who share its commitment to reducing the US presence in Japan, resisting revision of the constitution, and resisting growing inequality.\”… and what lovely things to be ideological about! Makes me wear my disparaged label proud!


  4. From the beginning I thought it perfectly feasible to have a coalition with just the DPJ and the PNP. These two parties, after all, have a common parliamentary group in the upper house.Given the mandate from last August's general election, the Hatoyama cabinet could IMO have contented itself with a near-majority in the upper house until the coming elections for that house. They could then talk with the SDPJ about labour laws, with Everyone's Party about administrative reform etc.But now the cabinet has frittered away any authority which came with the mandate from the general election. Not only did it come back on Mr. Hatoyama's word on Futenma, he even claimed his party was not bound by it because it was not in its official manifesto!Then you have the flip-flopping on motorway tolls, revelations about campaign financing and tax evasion, the ineffectual handling of foot & mouth etc..Coming back to Futenma, I have no idea why Henoko was spelled out in the US-Japanese agreement. Though Mr. Inamine won by a narrow margin and thanks largely to votes from built-up areas away from Henoko, he was nevertheless duly elected mayor of Nago City.Though I heard it mentioned on TV talk programmes that the end-of-May deadline had to do with securing the budget in Congress for moving 8000 Marines to Guam, I heard no explanation why the US Government pressed for what Shizuka-chan said was an undoable plan which was not worth quitting the coalition over.Has anyone heard what the Pentagon, the State Dept. etc. each insisted on? Any word on why 'Henoko' is mentiond in spite of Mayor Inamine?


  5. DanS

    The DPJ can now muster 313 votes, just under the 317 need for a 2/3 majority, assuming cooperation with the PNP. The SDP might still cooperate on numerous issues. Most importantly, Komeito could swing around (20 seats) to the DPJ. The Upper House election is a slide show: even if the DPJ gets ZERO seats, the Lower House DPJ can still ram through budgets, international treaties, and bills with a 2/3 Lower House majority. The problem is not with the parliamentary system, but with the need to have elections to the Upper House. The Upper House is completely powerless and appointee only in the UK. The need to have elections puts the DPJ under excessive populist pressure, and also encourages election funding fraud (since you need money to fight all those elections). Am I right?


  6. Fat Tony

    Dan S: Yes, you are right. Upper houses are also a stupid idea in general, both when they are formed to protect the interests of elites or geographically bounded communities (because then they are undemocratic), or to represent on the same one-person-one-vote basis as the Lower House (because then they are superfluous). Even the American drafters of the constitution thought an Upper House was unnecessary. The reason it exists is because conservatives in Japan thought it would act as a brake on a potential left-wing takeover of the government. Funny that.


  7. Anonymous

    I don't really think the coalition was doomed from the outset. If Hatoyama's initial claim, demanding US bases to be removed to \”outside the country\” (Kokugai), indicated what he really wanted, then the coalition with the SDPJ seems very reasonable. Besides, considering him as a grand son of Ichiro Hatoyama, who wanted rearmament, an equal relationship with the US, and complete autonomy over foreign policy, he may have had an idea to use the SDPJ to eliminate US-bases and reconstruct relationship with the US afterwards.I believe after talking to American officials, he quickly learned that it was nearly impossible to remove the bases.SAD – Shigeru Yoshida's grudge still lingers.


  8. Anonymous

    As usual I have to agree with your diagnosis and prognosis regarding the fate and future of the SDPJ. But your condemnation of the predecessor SPJ's \”outmoded\” ideology as the primary cause of the SDPJ's current dillemma needs some historical nuances to be accurate. Fat Tony has made some good points regarding Takako Doi's heroic task to save the principles of the SPJ. I recall when Tomiichi Murayama agreed to join the LDP in a coalition government, he was jeered as having betrayed the principles of the SPJ by members on the left. It was during this strained period when many of the members left to join the splinter parties that eventually formed the DPJ that the SPJ lost most of its previous strength. We have discussed previously on this forum, the ways in which the SPJ played a useful role in preventing the LDP from veering too far toward compromising Japan's post-war constitutional stand on pacifism under pressure from a resurgent American global dominance following the disintegration of its principal opponent the Soviet Union. If you believe as I do that the dangers for Japan during the developing global instability are real and potentially disastrous then you will surely agree with me that the survival of the much diminished SDPJ is crucial.


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