Why the Governing Party Election Is the Main Event in Japan

TOKYO — When people think of preordained elections these days, they tend to look to Russia or Iran or Hong Kong. But in Japan, a parliamentary democracy and the world’s third-largest economy, the same party has governed for all but four years since 1955, and most expect it to win the general election due by the end of November.

So on Wednesday, when the Liberal Democratic Party chooses a successor to Yoshihide Suga, the unpopular prime minister and party chief, it will almost certainly anoint the prime minister who will lead Japan into the new year.

But why, in a country with free elections, where voters have expressed dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of the coronavirus and the Olympics, can the Liberal Democratic Party remain so confident of victory?

They’re good at shape-shifting.

The Liberal Democrats try to be all things to all people.

The party formed in 1955, three years after the end of the postwar American occupation of Japan. Yet the United States had a hand in its gestation.

Supporters cheering after the Liberal Democratic Party was formed in a merger in Tokyo in 1955.Credit…The Asahi Shimbun, via Getty Images

Fearing that Japan, which had a growing left-wing labor movement, might be lured into the Communist orbit, the C.I.A. urged several rival conservative factions to come together.

“They didn’t necessarily like each other or get along, but they were engineered into one mega-party,” said Nick Kapur, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University.

The new Liberal Democratic Party oversaw Japan’s rapid growth during the 1960s and 1970s, which helped to solidify its power. And over the decades, it has morphed into a big tent, as reflected in the candidates seeking the party’s top position this week.

Sanae Takaichi, 60, is a hard-line conservative. Fumio Kishida, 64, is a moderate who talks about a “new capitalism.” Seiko Noda, 61, supports greater rights for women and other groups. Taro Kono, 58, eventually wants to phase out the nuclear power industry.

Such variation helps explain the Liberal Democrats’ longevity. If voters tire of one version of the party, it pivots in another direction. Party leaders have also shrewdly co-opted policy ideas from the opposition.

Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor of social sciences at Waseda University in Tokyo, likens the party to Amazon. “You can find anything to buy, and they will deliver it to your house,” she said. “Therefore people do not need any opposition party to buy something else.”

The opposition is weak.

A dozen years ago, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan rode to a landslide victory. It was only the second time that the Liberal Democrats had lost. But it turned out that voters were not ready for so much change.

Yukio Hatoyama, the Democratic Party leader, during elections in 2009.Credit…Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

The new government said it would break up the “iron triangle” between the Liberal Democrats, the bureaucracy and vested interests. While voters recognized problems with that arrangement, “they in general appreciate the competent bureaucracy,” said Shinju Fujihira, executive director of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

The Democrats’ promise to close an American base on Okinawa also proved difficult to fulfill. They waffled on a plan to raise a consumption tax, and they pushed for a strong yen and cuts in infrastructure spending, policies that hindered economic growth.

Then came the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima in 2011, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami. The government’s mishandling of the disaster sealed the public’s impression of a bungling party, and the opposition has struggled to recover ever since.

In recent years, the Democratic Party has split and new opposition parties have formed, making it harder for any one of them to capture voters’ attention.

The opposition’s brief time in power “left a major scar,” said Mireya Solis, co-director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

The Liberal Democrats don’t win alone.

Since 1999, the Liberal Democrats have partnered with another party, Komeito, that has helped to keep them in power.

Komeito is the political arm of a religious movement, Soka Gakkai, that was founded in the 1960s and can regularly deliver a bloc of votes.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, right, with Natsuo Yamaguchi, the Komeito Party leader, at the party’s convention in Tokyo last year.Credit…Jiji Press/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Japan’s bifurcated election system, voters select an individual candidate in some districts and choose a party’s list of candidates in others. The Liberal Democrats and Komeito strategically choose where they back candidates, effectively swapping votes.

The parties make an odd pairing: Mainstream Liberal Democratic policy is hawkish about bolstering Japan’s military capabilities, while Komeito is much less so.

But Komeito knows the partnership has pragmatic benefits.

“In order to maintain power, if you continue to insist on only your own ideologies, it would not work,” said Hisashi Inatsu, a Komeito member of Parliament from Hokkaido who said the Liberal Democratic Party had backed him in three elections.

There may also be financial incentives for such vote-swapping. Amy Catalinac, an assistant professor of politics at New York University, has analyzed districts where the parties coordinate closely.

“What we found out is that the L.D.P. and Komeito are using pork to reward places where supporters are switching votes to the other party as instructed,” she said, using the colloquial term for government spending targeted to local constituencies.

Apathy helps.

In many ways, the Liberal Democrats benefit from voter apathy.

When the party suffered its rare loss in 2009, voter turnout was 69 percent. When it returned to power in 2012, less than 60 percent of voters had showed up.

Independents don’t see much point in voting. “They’re not going to be mobilized if the opposition doesn’t have something to offer them,” said Richard Samuels, a Japan specialist who directs the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Inertia is potent in a country where the trains run on time, everyone has access to health care and, now, an initially slow Covid-19 vaccine rollout has started to surpass those of other wealthy countries.

“It’s not that great right now, but it could have been worse,” said Shihoko Goto, a senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. “‘Stay the course’ doesn’t seem that unattractive to many people.”

Makiko Inoue and HIkari Hida contributed research.

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