Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party loses seats but holds onto power

LDP leader, Fumio Kishida (Image: 切干大根/Wikimedia Commons)

After being in power since 2012, the coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito (a conservative party linked to a lay Buddhist organisation) retained its majority in the Japanese Lower House election.

The ruling party lost seats but the main opposition parties failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them. There had been considerable discontent over the government pushing ahead with the Olympic Games, despite the opposition of the majority of the population, as well as its handling of the pandemic, in general, and the increase in inequality in Japanese society.

In spite of this, the largest opposition parties – the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Communist Party – also lost seats. The rightist Japanese Innovation Party, which was outside the opposition alliance, made major gains.

The voter turnout at 55.3%, was slightly up on the last election in 2017. But it was the third-lowest in the postwar period. The reasons given by respondents in a Kyodo News survey go a long way to explaining the result. Asked the reason for the low turnout, 50% said it was because people thought “casting ballots would not change anything”. Nearly 18% said that there were no candidates to their liking and over 17% said it was “not easy to understand the points of contention”.

Hopes

The main opposition parties had some hopes for the election, because of an electoral agreement between four parties. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), the Japan Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) and Reiwa Shinsengumi (RS – a small leftist party built around a popular actor victimised for his opposition to nuclear power) agreed not to stand against each other in the single-seat constituencies.  A fifth party – the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) – had electoral agreements with the CDPJ and was generally included in the alliance, but it was opposed to working with the Japan Communist Party and did not sign up to the opposition alliance’s political programme. In the end, there was a unified opposition candidate standing in three-quarters of the single-seat constituencies.

The LDP had had consistently low opinion poll ratings for its handling of the Covid pandemic although polls still showed it to be the most popular. However, because of the way the state of emergency was set up, it was the prefectoral governors in Tokyo and Osaka – in both cases rightists not from the main opposition parties – who were able to sideline the opposition with criticism of first Abe and then Suga’s policies.

When the ruling party’s private polls showed how unpopular Suga was, he was promptly ditched. The newly elected leader, Kishida Fumio, then called an election that only allowed for 17 days of campaigning. This coincided with a rapid fall in the number of COVID 19 cases and news that, despite a slow start, vaccination rates had reached 70% of the population.

All of these things made it difficult for the opposition to effectively use this issue, even though it was ranked third in importance by voters behind the economy and the issue of pensions and welfare.

The CPDJ correctly pointed to the growth of inequality under LDP governments and to the fact that between 2014 and 2019, family income had fallen by 3.5%, with only the top 10% wealthiest enjoying an increase. However, they had no solution. Being a party largely composed of former members of the more right-wing elements of the Social Democratic Party and various small liberal capitalist parties and breakaways from the ruling party, any kind of socialist policy was out of the question.

Taxation and reforms

The LDP had itself been running substantial budget deficits, so it could hardly advocate it as the way forward. This left only taxation and, in particular, a proposal to reduce sales tax to 5%. The rightist JIP actually called for its reduction to 5% for two years and the leftist Reiwa Shinsengumi called for the abolition of the sales tax outright. This might have been more convincing if the former Democratic Party prime minister responsible for raising the sales tax from 5% to 10%, Noda Yoshihiko, was not presently a member of the CDPJ. In fact, he bragged about how he had “staked his political career” on the increases. Edano, the CDPJ leader, has also been the chief cabinet secretary in this government.

The newly-elected LDP leader, Fumio Kishida, attempted to distance himself from Abenomics, calling for increased taxation of corporations and the wealthy and tax breaks for companies that give wage increases to their workers – what he called a “new model of capitalism”.  Voters could not see a lot of difference between the proposals of the parties and, in any case, had little faith that the proposals would be implemented. There was a mood of “better the devil you know”!

Other issues in the election were those of allowing women to keep their maiden names after marriage and also same-sex marriage. While socialists always support these measures, during this election even the rightist Japan Innovation Party was now supporting them. A further issue is nuclear power and in particular, the restarting of the plants closed after the Fukushima disaster. Even here, the CDPJ is divided and the conservative NIP formally takes an anti-nuclear stance.

There were bigger differences regarding defence. The LDP, using fear of China’s growth as a military power, proposed increasing the cap on defence spending from 1% to 2%. There was also the question of revision of the constitution which had receded into the background since the fall of Abe Shinzo but which Kishida remains committed to. The LDP attempted to use differences between the CDPJ and the JCP to attack the opposition alliance. The CDPJ supports the Japan/US security treaty, while the JCP calls for its replacement by a “treaty of friendship”. Fears in relation to China were stoked up during the election campaign. A joint Chinese/Russian military exercise took place in which Russian and Chinese ships, while remaining in international waters, passed through the Osumi Strait, off the coast of Kyushu. 

Since the election, a systematic campaign has been waged by the press, the right-wing parties and the Rengo trade union leaders blaming the opposition’s failure on the alliance with the JCP. There is very little evidence for this. Some of the LDP leaders even claimed that a vote for the opposition was a vote for communism. The JCP withdrew its candidates in favour of liberals and in some cases conservatives! The CWI in Japan opposes this red-baiting nonsense. However, the approach of the JCP on the question of alliances and who to work with is fundamentally flawed.

‘Communists’ and others

Firstly, before Abe’s security legislation in 2015, the JCP avoided involvement in opposition alliances. As disillusion with the Democratic Party government set in, the JCP, in isolation, managed to pick up support, getting over 6 million votes – 11.4% of the total – in the 2014 election. In the latest election, it was down to about 4.5 million. However, the party had its own theory of stages. Japan was not yet ready for socialism and what was necessary was a ‘democratic revolution’, national independence and the creation of an advanced democracy. This policy provides the theoretical basis for co-operating with liberal capitalist parties.

Abe’s legislation allowing collective self-defence involving allies was widely seen as an attack on Article 9 of the Constitution, in which Japan renounces the use of war. The JCP participated in this movement with others on the left. It led to the creation of the CDPJ (Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan) from some of the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party, former members of the Social Democratic Party and others.

Initially, the CDPJ leader, Edano Yukio, talked about the need to make sure that the mistakes of the Democratic Party – in his view a lack of agreement on basic policies – should not be repeated. The new party was attacked by the right as an attempt to rebuild the old Japan Socialist Party. While this is an overstatement, its candidates did attract support from unions that had in the past supported the JSP and also later, when it changed its name, the SDPJ (Social Democratic Party of Japan).

In this situation, the JCP reversed its former position and went along with the proposals within the movement for an opposition alliance. They justified it on the basis of a need to protect the “peace constitution”. They even declared that they would enter a government to abolish the legislation and then leave it as soon as this task was completed!

However, the CDPJ has since drifted to the right.  The party merged with many of the former elements of the Democratic Party and today looks very much as the Democratic Party did – a party full of conservative figures who are not fundamentally different from those in the LDP. Of the CDPJ candidates who were successfully elected, 30% support constitutional revision. There are similar divisions in the party over nuclear power. Its defeat in the election, the resignation of its leader, Edano, and depending on who is elected as its new leader, could possibly lead to a further drift to the right and to the JCP being unceremoniously ejected from the opposition alliance.

The rotten role played by the leaders of the largest union federation, Rengo, should be noted. It is largely composed of unions in the public sector and employees in recently privatised public sector concerns. These were once allied to the SDPJ and tend to back the CDPJ. They also back extremely conservative unions in private industry, often integrated into the corporate structure, which backs the DPFP (Democratic Party for the People).

The JCP has its own union federation, which includes breakaways from public-sector unions, such as the municipal workers, teachers, postal workers etc. This dates from the formation of Rengo at the end of the 1980s. The union bureaucracies naturally share a common hostility to the JCP.

The position in the major private-sector unions is even worse, with many hostile to the policies of the joint opposition. For example, the power generation workers support nuclear power and back restarting closed plants. The Toyota unions – very influential in Rengo – have moved closer to the LDP. They are unhappy that the CDPJ has not lobbied to prevent the government’s promotion of electric cars! Toyota management backed hybrid, rather than electric, cars and fear being left behind by their competitors.

The tradition in the tame corporate unions is that the leaders rise up in the company and become the next generation of personnel managers. They respond to management mistakes by political pressure on the state to come to the aid of the Toyoda family, which still effectively runs the company, even though with a small minority of shares.

These unions exploit the fears of their members about job losses, to which the liberal opposition parties have no real answer. A genuine workers’ party would counterpose public ownership of the electricity generating companies and corporations like Toyota, under the democratic control and management of the working class. It would fight for a cut in working hours and for a co-ordinated plan to maintain jobs and to move away from ecologically damaging production. Today, though, no such party exists and these corporate-controlled unions are a major obstacle towards the creation of such a party.

Kishida government faces problems 

The Kishida government may have secured a majority, but it is not going to have things all its own way.  Support for Kishida’s cabinet stands at around 58%. This contrasts with the over 70% support for the Suga cabinet when it was first formed.

When Kishida made tentative proposals to increase taxation on corporations and the wealthy during his campaign for the LDP leadership, the then vice-minister of finance – unelected bureaucrat, Koji Yano – attacked, in a weekly magazine, the proposals for redistribution coming from politicians. An adverse response from financial markets led to Kishida making clear he did not intend to do this.

A poll of newly elected LDP Diet members indicated that only 17% “leaned in favour” of corporate tax increases, with 32% “leaning against” and 51% undecided. Any “new model” of capitalism is likely to be still-born. In the present situation, it would take a real party of the working class even to win reforms.

This government will do nothing to solve the problems facing the mass of the Japanese population. Increasing inequality and clashes between the classes are inevitable. Out of those battles, the labour movement will be radicalised and a party of the Japanese working class will be built.

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