Japan: Heavy defeat for government in elections

Scandals abound

The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a crushing defeat in the Upper House elections on 29 July 2007. In office for only ten months, he failed his first political test after a row of scandals. One of the biggest of these is the pensions’ scandal. Pension funds are inadequate in Japan. Many employers and the rich never contributed their share into pension funds while governments have failed to deal with the problem for years. This comes on top of the government pro-market policies which have increased wealth polarisation and added to the concerns of Japanese workers.

However, on top of this during changes to the pension system the government managed to lose or corrupt the pension records of over 50 million people. This means on top of everything else, many people will be cheated out of their pensions.

There have been other massive blunders such as one government minister describing women’s social role as "breeding machines" and scandals such as the Minister of Agriculture committing suicide over accusations of financial irregularities. His successor is in trouble too. The Defence Minister had to step down after legitimising the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second world war.


In addition, a shattering earthquake in Niigata (northwest of Tokyo), which left many dead and injured, did not help. The earthquake revealed that a complex of six nuclear reactors was built on top of the fault which caused the quake. A fire in a transformer, 40 meters from the reactors, blazed for two hours, supposedly for lack of water (the reactor is built next to the sea…). The reactor systems shut down in time, leaked radioactivity was minimal, but the situation hardly inspired confidence in the safety situation of the other 54 nuclear power stations in Japan.

The government retains more than a two-thirds majority in the Lower House but in the Upper House it has no more than 103 seats compared to the opposition’s 134. It means the Democratic Party of Japan has full control of the Upper House. The Japanese election system is rather complicated with elections for half of the Upper House held every three years. Also, some of the seats are elected according to proportional representation and others in geographical districts. In theory, the government could introduce bills through the Lower House, have them voted down in the Upper House and then use its two-thirds majority, but this is a very cumbersome way of governing. The political message is clear: there is no confidence in the present government.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Abe has vowed to continue with his neo-liberal programme of attacks on working class living standards. His agenda includes changing the Constitution to take away the article that states Japan should have no armed forces and providing a legal framework to send the Japanese Self Defense Forces abroad, mainly to support the US.

His grandfather and hero was Kishi, a minister in wartime cabinets, a suspected A-class war criminal who was never convicted and set free in 1948 in order to become Japan’s Prime Minister in the late fifties.

Perhaps a more compelling reason for staying in power is the fact that his successor would have to lead the ruling party through the next disaster, elections for the Lower House and therefore it is hard to find a candidate for this post among the ranks of the LDP. Candidates to take this poisoned chalice exist, like Foreign Minister Aso, but nobody is very keen.

The election is a defeat for the government which is likely to produce many more problems for Japan’s ruling class, but it is not a victory for the workers. The main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was founded in 1996 by, amongst others, Ozawa, who left the LDP in 1993. This politician was a pupil of Prime Minister Tanaka, the godfather of corrupt pork barrel politics in the seventies. The more traditional workers’ parties (Communist and Social Democratic Party) are no more than a shadow of the past. Like elsewhere internationally, there is no party to represent the interests of the working class. Individual union candidates sometimes get seats through established parties, but this has very limited significance.

Nevertheless, it is a significant election result. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been in power since 1955 (with an exception of 10 months in 1993) so its absolute dominance has received a blow. The Democratic Party will strive to have elections for the Lower House as soon as possible in order to capitalise on its present position among voters (and to hide the fact that it lacks a real program to address the problems of Japan). The increased instability in the political situation opens up the prospect of an increased involvement of workers in politics which will ultimately lead to a realisation that a new workers’ party is necessary. The heightened interest of the Japanese public in the elections can be explained by the fact that people’s wallets (pensions and taxes) were under attack. The issues, like the divide between rich and poor, pensions and pension records, an increase of consumption tax to address the Japan` s huge government debt, will not go away.

The lack of real solutions under the present system of rule is also here to stay. The election result has shown the depth of resentment for the ruling party among Japanese workers.

Opposition? What opposition?

Carl Simmons, Osaka

The Democratic Party was founded as part of a conscious move by the ruling class to create a safe second eleven when it had become apparent that the LDP’s single party rule was beginning to crumble as changes in society undermined its traditional base. They wanted to create a US style system, dominated by pro-business parties.

The lead was actually taken by the right-wing union leaders in their union organisations, both in what was then the Socialist Party (SP) affiliated Sohyo, and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) affiliated Domei. They "united" to form the Rengo, excluding CP affiliated unions, with the explicit programme of creating such a pro-capitalist opposition party. As part of this "project" they successful campaigned for a change in the electoral system with the creation of a large number of single seat constituencies. The aim of this was to entrench a two party system.

These union leaders engineered the breakaway of the bulk of the SP parliamentary faction, which merged with the DSP, several smaller Pro-capitalist parties and Renegades from the LDP. While the renegades such as Ozawa have provided the leadership, the Rengo to this day provides much of its organised base. This is has become weaker though as the Rengo’s authority has weakened. The move towards part-time, limited contract, hourly paid and subcontracted workers has severely undermined Rengo’s base.

The Democratic Party of Japan includes individuals who are quite at home with Abe and the nationalist right. There are a number of DPJ MPs who visit the Yasukuni shrine every year. On the other hand there are individuals with labour union links who would probably be on the left of Blair/Brown New Labour. Because of the diverse views the party lacks any clear policy distinct from that of the LDP. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that the party might attempt to work with Abe. However, this seems unlikely because of the personal ambition of leaders like Ozawa, who sees himself as the "Churchill" of Japan, ready to return from the political wilderness to "save the country". They see the LDP on the ropes and will probably push home their advantage.

In some ways this will be a good thing, because the DPJ in government is likely to exacerbate the policy differences in its ranks and maybe even prepare the way for a future split. However, the problem is the lack of any alternative on the left. The rump ’left’ of the old Socialist Party, now renamed the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) is severely weakened. This is in part because of its former North Korean associations, after the exposure of the latter’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens and development of nuclear weapons. The SDPJ is committed to entering a coalition with the DPJ, and sees its main role as the guardian of article 9 of the post war constitution, which renounces the right of the country to wage war, within such a coalition. Many of the unions that support the SDPJ now also support the Democratic Party of Japan.

The Japanese Communist Party (CP), while it still retains a certain base is largely isolated. While formally opposed to a coalition with the DPJ, its program stands officially for the reform of capitalism. Socialism has been relegated to the distant future, if it all. Whether it would maintain its opposition to coalition if the DPJ found use for its services is another matter. It seems largely incapable of taking advantage of the opportunities to expand its base. While the CP has important unions that support it, in the public sector, amongst medical workers and private universities, these are by no means immune from the conservatism of the Rengo.

For example, most of their affiliates at private universities have constitutions that exclude, part-time, limited contract or dispatch workers from joining. These workers make up over 50% of the workforce in some universities. The party is doing nothing to organise and fight for these sections of the working class that have the least to gain from the existing system. A call for them to vote for the CP, without a real fight for their interests, largely falls on deaf ears.

A socialist alternative to all of the existing parties is sorely needed, although a number of failed attempts to create new parties has put obstacles in the way of such a development.

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August 2007