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Is the DPJ Brand Worth Saving?

Kaieda Camera

DPJ leader Banri Kaieda

SNA (Tokyo) — There are many reasons for the hapless condition that the Japanese political opposition has fallen into, but one of the biggest factors surrounds the state and ambitions of the largest remaining opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan. The question, put simply, is whether or not the DPJ should focus on trying rebuild itself into a party that may one day govern the nation again, or if it has fallen so low in public esteem that its lawmakers would better advised to jump ship and to start afresh with a new political party.

Strong arguments can be made for either course of action.

On the “save the DPJ” side of the ledger is the fact that it is a former ruling party with national name recognition. It has candidates ready to run in all regions of Japan, and some of them are pretty good candidates. All efforts by the Japan Restoration Party to topple the DPJ as the leading opposition party failed, and even the most recent realignment efforts seem likely to fall short once again unless large numbers of DPJ lawmakers themselves decide to defect. It could also be argued that the Abe government’s unusually competent performance in government has artificially depressed the DPJ’s party support ratings. And, after all, as low as the DPJ’s support has been recently, it is still marginally better than any of its rivals.

But on the “ditch the DPJ” side of the account there are also compelling perspectives. It may be that the DPJ has so tarnished its reputation during its three years in power that the Japanese people will never trust them again with the reins of government. Moreover, the liberal-conservative divide that transformed DPJ governance into a circus is still just as much a factor now as then. A year and a half in the political wilderness has done nothing to bring the senior DPJ leaders together, as witnessed by the campaign to take down leader Banri Kaieda. So despite the DPJ’s national organization, it still works at cross-purposes and there’s no immediate prospect that this is going to change.

The internal ideological inconsistency of Japanese political parties is a constant source of exasperation for political observers, and it also undermines the meaningfulness and effectiveness of Japanese democracy.

From that perspective, it may be better that DPJ does split, with its conservatives gathering together with like-minded colleagues in the defunct Japan Restoration Party, Unity Party, and Your Party, and the liberals tying up with the desperate and dying People’s Life Party and Social Democratic Party.

Such a realignment would, of course, do little in the short-term to address the massive imbalance in Japanese politics between its overwhelming conservative wing and its weak and ineffective liberal wing, but at least it would set the stage for the possibility of a more balanced democratic system down the road should Japanese liberals ever find a leader with competence and charisma. It would also make voting for a particular party in the proportional representation segment of elections more meaningful in terms of policy.

Japanese political history, however, counsels pessimism about things actually working out that way. The precise arguments we are making now in the mid-2010s would apply with equal force to the situation in the mid-1990s. Now, as then, we hear few if any politicians inside the Diet who are calling for a realignment of the opposition based on ideological lines. Instead, all the arguments for realignment seem to be based on organizational issues, public relations, and near-term election tactics.

For the time being, the smart money says that Liberal Democratic Party dominance will continue for some time yet, because at least they agree internally on one kind of conservatism or another. This means that they can actually govern. Unless the DPJ and other opposition parties can at least realign themselves into groupings that make some minimal amount of policy sense, it’s difficult to see how they can put up much of a fight to the LDP and to convince the Japanese people that they can lead the nation.

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