TOKYO -- Spare a moment to reflect on the fate of Japan’s venerable Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as it surveys the wreckage from Sunday’s electoral tsunami that pushed the party from power for the first time since its founding in 1955.
Obviously, the big political story in Japan for the next few months will be whether the new masters, the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), are up for prime time. Almost of equal importance is another question: can the LDP survive in opposition?
After all, it has taken years for Japan’s democracy to evolve to the point where it has a two-party system, where two parties of roughly equal strength alternate in power. It would be a shame if it turned out that the Sunday’s votes had simply exchanged one longtime one-party rule for that of another.
Not a few political scientists and pundits have wondered whether the LDP might disintegrate without the unifying glue of being in office, being able to hand out cabinet posts, and all of the other perks that come with holding on to power.
Even before all of the votes were counted, Prime Minister Taro Aso announced that he would step down as party president to atone for the defeat. That was hardly a surprise, and most of his fellow members probably are thinking to themselves: Don’t let the door hit you as you leave the room.
Still, it would be hugely unfair to attribute the LDP defeat to the prime minister alone. Aso made mistakes and committed gaffes in his nearly one-year tenure, but this was a vote against his party, not Aso. For that matter, his successor, Yukio Hatoyama, isn’t exactly wildly popular either.
The LDP has scheduled an election to find a new party leader on Sept. 28, a week or so after the new government is sworn in, which means that prospective candidates, who just finished weeks of grueling campaigning, will have to criss-cross the country again to win votes from the prefectural party organizations.
As of this writing, no one has thrown his or her hat in the ring, and the post is considered wide open. Some might ask, who would really want the job? For the first time since 1993, when the LDP fell temporarily from power in a parliamentary maneuver, the post of party president does not automatically bring with it the job of prime minister.
One possible candidate to lead the party in opposition is Hidenao Nakagawa, who tried to foment a short-lived revolt against Aso back in July. Nakagawa was defeated in his constituency, but survived by winning on the proportional voting list (in Japan candidates can file for both single-seats and the PR list.)
In electoral district after electoral district, septuagenarian LDP Diet members, men and women who had been returned in eight, ten, twelve consecutive elections, who had served as cabinet ministers or faction leaders, fell to thirty-something political neophytes, many of them women. (Some, like Nakagawa, got back by being on the proportional list.)
Yet many of the LDP old guard managed to survive. These included the last three prime ministers, Aso, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, three men responsible for the party’s steady decline over the last few years. So did former premier Yoshiro Mori, who may hold the world record for the lowest public approval rating of any democratically elected leader during his short term.
It appears that only those stalwart Liberal Democratic Party Diet members re-elected who were so strongly entrenched in their constituencies that they could withstand the electoral tsunami. Many others did not. The LDP lost 181 seats, including some 66 which were won by “Koizumi’s children” in the 2005 election won by Japan’s last popular premier, Junichiro Koizumi.
Many of the losers were first time Diet members, elected in the Koizumi landslide four years ago, who had not had enough time to make their local political position impregnable. As American political scientist and commentator Tobias Harris put it: “The post-election LDP may be cursed with too many leaders and too few followers.”
If the future of the party depends on bringing in new people, younger people, people with fresh ideas, then the LDP has a long, long way to go. Only five of the new parliamentary intake are members of the LDP (and one of them was Koizumi’s the son). By contrast, more than 150 Democrats were first-time law makers.
The former ruling party was virtually obliterated in Japan’s major cities. In Tokyo, the Democrats won 20 of the 25 seats, where it previously held only one. In Osaka it won 17 seats, where it had previously held two; Aichi prefecture, centered on Nagoya, gave the Democrats all their seats. But the party also swept the board in some rural prefectures, such as Niigata.
According to exit polls, about 30 percent of normal LDP supporters switched to the Democratic Party for this election. That figure, of course, partly explains the party’s success. But it also raises an intriguing question: were these one-time protest votes, or will many of them permanently change their allegiance?
The future of the LDP may ride on that answer.