Japan's Conservative Party Struggles


THE stunning defeat of Japan's ruling conservatives in Tokyo municipal elections on Sunday - and the equally dramatic victory of the Socialist Party - signal major structural change in Japanese politics, analysts say. The results are widely expected to be repeated later this month in nationwide elections for the upper house of the parliament. Analysts foresee the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) losing its majority in the upper house for the first time. The scandal-ridden LDP has proven it is unable to shake off the public's profound mistrust.

The Tokyo vote and its aftermath have already turned Prime Minister Sosuke Uno into a de facto lame-duck leader. Since becoming prime minister about a month ago, Mr. Uno not only failed to improve the LDP's fortunes - he clearly worsened them. His resignation is only a matter of timing, say most observers. At the earliest, he would step down before the July 23 election. But more probably, experts here say, he is unlikely to survive the anticipated LDP loss in the parliament poll.

If the trend set by the Tokyo vote holds, it could ultimately lead to a realignment of power in Japan where the conservatives have controlled the government virtually without a break since the end of World War II.

``Single-party control by the LDP is going to end,'' predicts editorial writer Shoichi Oikawa, a veteran political reporter for the Yomuiri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily. ``And a new restructuring of political parties will come in a few years. This is the beginning of that change.''

The Tokyo elections were a particularly important bellwether. The metropolitan area is the center of Japanese political and business life, and encompasses almost 9 million voters. Though the vote was to select 128 members of the local legislature, the campaign was conducted on all sides on almost purely national issues.

``LDP candidates were like scapegoats'' for the central government, commented Shintaro Ishihara, an LDP parliamentarian from Tokyo.

The opposition successfully stressed several key issues. People are unhappy with the outcome of the massive Recruit Company corruption scandal, in which Recruit provided funds in exchange for political favors.

Polls show most Japanese are critical of the conservatives for not implementing political reforms and for failing to make politicians involved pay the price for receiving Recruit funds.

Voters are angered by the image of politicians on-the-take, while they must pay a 3 percent sales tax imposed since April. The revelation of Prime Minister Uno's paid sexual liaison with a geisha added to the LDP's troubles.

``We voted the scoundrels out,'' one woman told a television interviewer. ``It's as simple as that.''

The LDP expected to lose ground in Tokyo, but the result was below the worst-case estimates circulating in party circles. The LDP dropped sharply, from 63 seats to 43, and earned only 30 percent of the vote, 10 percentage points less than in the previous election. The Socialists, previously only the fourth largest party with 12 seats, tripled their legislative strength, gaining 36 seats (including Socialist-backed independents). Their popular vote similarly soared, almost equaling that of the LDP.

The Socialists also gained at the expense of two other opposition parties which have great strength in Tokyo - the Buddhist Komeito (Clean Government) Party and the Japan Communist Party.

The Komeito apparently suffered from the involvement of some of its members in the Recruit scandal. And the Communists, which lost 5 seats, were tarred by the events in China even though the party has no links to Beijing and strongly denounced the crackdown there.

The Socialists, who are the leading opposition group in the national parliament, scored most heavily among women voters. The Socialist call for abolition of the sales tax and their leadership in raising the previously taboo subject of the sexual escapades of Japan's male-dominated political society gained a degree of female support that surprised most observers.

``Woman power pushed the Socialists to this,'' commented Hajime Takano, editor of the political newsletter Tokyo Insider. More than 61 percent of eligible women voted, compared to 56 percent of men, a record gap. The Socialist are the only major party led by a woman, Takako Doi, and they fielded a record 14 women candidates, 12 of whom were elected. Commentators called this fielding of female candidates a ``Madonna strategy,'' a label Ms. Doi derided as the product of male prejudice.

The Tokyo results, coming after Socialist victories in two earlier elections to fill empty parliament seats, reflect a broader pattern of disaffection. The conservatives are clearly losing the once-solid support of traditional constituencies - of farmers, small merchants, housewives, and white-collar salaried employees. The defection of farmers, also angered by reduction in government subsidies and protection, was key to losses in the two by-elections.

An enthusiastic Doi told reporters after the Tokyo vote that the party was taking a ``hop, step, and a jump.''

The Tokyo election was a ``big hop,'' she said, to be followed by a `step' in the upper house election. The final jump, she predicted, would come in a full-scale general election to the lower house of parliament.

According to a scenario circulating among political analysts, the Socialist-led opposition will be able to use its upper house majority to force the full election later this fall. Major legislation must be approved by both houses of the Diet (parliament). But it is control of the lower house, where the conservatives hold a large majority, that determines who forms the government.

While an opposition government is still considered a long shot by almost all observers, there is increasing talk that these events could provoke a split in the LDP. The Socialists will also be under pressure to drop their Marxist leftwing. New party structures and alignments could then emerge. ``Politics is changing. I sense that,'' Doi said.

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