In just over three years, the fortunes of Japan’s two main political parties have been reversed.
Voters cheered the Democratic Party of Japan’s lofty goals and rosy promises after its victory in the 2009 Lower House election, while others started to write the obituary for the shattered Liberal Democratic Party.
But in its unfamiliar role as an opposition party, the LDP has watched the ruling DPJ bungle various policies, break promises and engage in fierce internal battles. The support ratings for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Cabinet have plummeted to under 20 percent, breathing new life into the LDP.
"Now, it’s payback time,” an LDP lawmaker said.
The unpopular Noda bowed to LDP demands and dissolved the Lower House on Nov. 16 for a snap election scheduled for Dec. 16.
Shortly after Noda’s announcement, LDP leader Shinzo Abe said at a meeting of party lawmakers, "We will fight what will be a historic battle."
Since then, many veteran LDP lawmakers have sounded like they had already taken back control of government.
"The LDP should be able to win an outright majority by itself," one of them said.
Abe was already talking about what he would do once he became prime minister after the Dec. 16 election.
"A strong economy will provide the firm foundation for social security," he said at a news conference later on Nov. 16. "We will also restore the Japan-U.S. relationship that has been badly damaged by the DPJ government."
The markets were also responding as though an LDP government was inevitable.
In a Nov. 15 speech, Abe mentioned his government would implement limitless deregulation of the financial market. That led to a weakening of the yen against the dollar and a surge in the Nikkei 225 index.
"Stock prices will rise even further once an Abe administration comes into power,” an LDP executive said. “We should be putting all of our assets into the market."
Although an LDP victory in the Lower House election would allow Abe to become prime minister again, he would still face gridlock in the Upper House, in which no party holds a majority.
But he gave no indication that he planned to cooperate with the DPJ after the election beyond the simultaneous reforms of the social security and tax systems.
"There are third-force parties. We will never partner with the DPJ," a lawmaker close to Abe said.
Others were drawing up plans to gain the upper hand in the traditional LDP faction battles.
One faction leader said, “Our political influence within the party will expand after the number of faction members increases with the election wins of current members and those who lost three years ago as well as rookie candidates."
But one LDP lawmaker, who won his first Diet seat in the 2009 election, urged a more cautious approach to the election. He is Shinjiro Koizumi, son of Junichiro Koizumi, the nation’s last politician to lead Japan before the years of rotating prime ministers.
"While there may be some direct expectations for the LDP, this dissolution was brought about because the outcry to do something about the political situation had reached its limits," said Koizumi, who took over the district held by his father. "We should not have our heads in the clouds and let our guard down."
The mood in the DPJ, meanwhile, was decidedly less upbeat.
“From a realistic standpoint, it will be difficult to win an outright majority because there have been a considerable number of lawmakers who have left the party,” said DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi, who is in charge of handling the day-to-day management of the overall Lower House campaign. “However, I guess I shouldn't be saying it will be difficult even before the campaign starts."
Three years ago, Eriko Fukuda, symbolized the dramatic change in government. A poster child of a legal campaign to help people who contracted hepatitis C through tainted blood products, Fukuda defeated a veteran LDP lawmaker in the 2009 election.
She defected from the DPJ on Nov. 16.
"Fighting as a DPJ candidate would mean betraying the DPJ, the people and myself," Fukuda said about her reasons for leaving the ruling party.
She will join a minor party whose main stance is to move away from nuclear energy, an issue on which Fukuda has not commented until now.
A Nov. 16 DPJ meeting to discuss a campaign manifesto for the Lower House election was also wracked by dissension.
Some lawmakers opposed the strong wording on joining negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement. About 100 participants were in attendance at the start of the meeting. By the time the discussions ended two hours later, the number had dwindled to about 20.
"It is just a waste of time to be discussing the manifesto,” a DPJ lawmaker said. “None of the voters will even look at it. I will not distribute it."
Another sign of the loss of enthusiasm for the DPJ was the Nov. 16 start of three days of screening for wasteful government programs.
When the screening process first began three years ago, more than 1,000 people stood in line for a seat. Some ended up standing to observe the proceedings.
However, on Nov. 16, no seats were made available for the general public. The reason was that the screening would involve a budget compiled by the DPJ--and there was no possibility that any program would be targeted for abolishment.
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