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The Reversal of Fortune

SNA (Tokyo) — The headline story from the 2017 general elections turned out to be a very familiar one: Shinzo Abe, once again, saw his ostensible opposition implode, handing him yet another victory by default. No Japanese national leader in modern history has been so fortunate in the poor quality of his main opponents.

However, there is now a real prospect that this is finally about to change. What happened on the opposition side of the aisle was something quite apart from business-as-usual. A viable progressive party has arisen.

Initially it appeared that the Party of Hope might be able to unseat Abe. With the media-savvy Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike in charge and the financial resources of the Democratic Party at her disposal, there seemed a good chance that she could take a deep enough bite into the Liberal Democratic Party’s majority that Abe would soon be replaced by his own party.

Koike failed spectacularly. Some analysts pointed to her decision to exclude liberal lawmakers from her party, which made her look arrogant in the eyes of some observers and also gave rise to the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ). The ideological loyalty oath seems to have been particularly resented. This served to split the opposition vote within single-seat constituencies to the advantage of the ruling party.

Another major factor was Koike’s decision not to run for a Diet seat herself, which signaled to everyone that she did not believe her own party could win, and made her agreement to absorb the Democratic Party look absurd. It might have been a different story had Koike shown a willingness to risk it all in a dramatic return to national politics. Instead, it was half in and half out, and the Japanese public couldn’t respect the lack of full commitment.

Koike’s era as political superwoman is likely now at an end, and she will take her place as yet another mere mortal.

Yukio Edano, on the other hand, did much better than expected. Despite his rather boring inaugural press conference, the public soon warmed to his defiant stand on behalf of the Constitution and the still-potent postwar vision of a peaceful and rule-abiding Japan.

The CDPJ’s social media presence immediately caught fire, with its Twitter account, in particular, ridiculously becoming the largest of all the Japanese political parties within a matter of days after its launch. This seemed to indicate wide acceptance from a more politically-engaged, tech-savvy class of Japanese.

The CDPJ was also given a major and not always fully appreciated boost by the Japan Communist Party, which withdrew many of its district candidates to clear the path for its success. It should be understood that the Communists adopted policies in this instance that were consciously detrimental to its own party interests on behalf of the cause of getting a larger number of progressive lawmakers elected nationally.

In the wake of the election, the CDPJ has wisely avoided what Edano calls “the politics of numbers” in which it might quickly combine with other elected incumbents in order to secure additional public subsidies or look stronger on paper. Rather, he has focused on first building up the CDPJ’s own progressive identity—turning it into a party that actually stands for something.

It’s early days yet, but for the time being the CDPJ has avoided the bad advice of those who argue that only a “catch-all party” can be successful under the terms of this electoral system.

The Japanese public—especially the majority of floating voters—hint at a different analysis: what they really respect (and will vote for) are credible leaders willing to put their own personal interests at risk for the sake of making Japan a better nation.

Junichiro Koizumi showed it in 2005 and won a landslide in spite of dividing the ruling party, and the reversal of fortune between Yuriko Koike and Yukio Edano showed it once again in this general election.

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