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With Liberal Democrats Happily Ever After?

What is happening?

Japan is going through difficult times. It is struggling with the lowest public support for political parties in the last 11 years, caused by domestic challenges such as a shrinking economy, a weak yen, or low salary growth, combined with a series of scandals of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A public opinion poll conducted by NNN (Nippon News Network) and Yomiuri Shimbun showed that 52 percent of respondents did not support any political party. The last time something like this happened was in November 2012 during the troublesome rule of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) between the years 2009 and 2012. The LDP dominated before the DPJ, and afterward, paradoxically, it seems that it will keep dominating in years to come.  


What is the broader picture?

The conservative LDP was founded in 1955 as a merger of several parties, most notably the Liberal Party and the Japan Democratic Party (not to be confused with the DPJ mentioned above), to prevent socialists and Communists from winning. However, the voices of various political streams remained within the newly formed LDP as individual factions. Since the merger, the LDP has ruled over Japan by itself or in a coalition, almost uninterrupted, with brief exceptions between 1993-1994 and 2009-2012. Therefore, postwar Japan’s government system is sometimes called the 1955 System. This system is suitable for stability, predictability, and long-term planning – qualities most Japanese people appreciate. On the other hand, one-party dominance can also lead to corruption, lack of motivation to fight for voters, and weakening of opposition.

Japan is an excellent example of the one-party dominance’s upsides and downsides. Following a successful postwar reconstruction, it has become one of the world’s safest, wealthiest, and most developed countries. At the same time, a growing number of LDP scandals contributed to its defeat in the 2009 elections and the progressive DPJ assuming power. However, this wind of change lasted only a short time. The DPJ suffered from its lack of experience, internal struggles, insufficient funding, and weak party organization on the nationwide level.

Additionally, it had to deal with opposition of the LDP and hostility from the business community, the media and the government bureaucracy, that were closely linked to the LDP after more than 50 years of its rule. Critique regarding the management of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami combined with the consequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was just yet another blow to the struggling DPJ, which later lost the 2012 election to the LDP and started to fall apart until it was completely dissolved in 2016. The LDP’s position has since been unshaken, and no new challenger from the opposition has appeared.   

The most significant opposition thus comes from within the LDP, represented by the abovementioned factions. Those are currently linked to one of the country’s biggest corruption scandals in decades, as it turned out that dozens of lawmakers have systematically not reported hundreds of millions of yen from fundraising campaigns. Prime Minister Kishida (LDP) repeatedly apologized, stepped down as head of his faction, and later dissolved it. Other factions linked to the scandal then dissolved as well. People involved in the scandal were removed from their posts, and an internal political reform task force was formed to tackle the issue. However, half of its members are also linked to the scandal. That is also why, in a public opinion survey conducted in February, 76 percent of respondents did not believe that the steps taken would restore trust in the LDP, and according to this month’s polls, the approval rate of Kishida’s Cabinet oscillates between 18 percent to 20 percent.

On top of that, more scandals keep popping up, such as the “Inappropriate Show” at the LDP Meeting featuring scantily clad female dancers, followed by explanations like: “This year’s theme was diversity. We aimed to raise questions about whether we’re truly paying attention to people who live differently or work in various professions. We believe the dancers performed professionally and had a strong sense of duty. (…).”


Why does it (NOT) matter?

Despite the scandals and public dissatisfaction with the Kishida government, the LDP continues to dominate compared to other Japanese political parties, at least among those still willing to vote. The abovementioned February survey showed that the LDP enjoyed 24 percent support, while the second most “popular” Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan had only 5 percent, and LDP’s coalition partner Komeito stood at 4 percent. The following Japanese general election is supposed to take place in October 2025, and it seems that no matter what happens, Japan will continue to be a one-party democracy, as it is sometimes called. For now, most Japanese society thus has to accept that they might not live with the LDP so happily, but seemingly ever after.