The DPJ has no friends.

A number of the Japanese opposition parties, or more accurately, non-government parties, are doing it all wrong.

Looking at the Yomiuri today (jp) Kan has given a shout-out to potential parties in case of their not being able to secure the 60 seats for an outright HoC majority at the current election (or the 54 needed should they head back into coalition with the PNP).

Nothing surprising about this. Nevertheless, with the New Komeito having recently “ruled out” a coalition with the DPJ after the election, and with various other ‘3rd pole’ parties having more or less done the same over the months, this call becomes all the more meaningful. After all, it seems almost everyone has ruled out working with the DPJ. To be sure, this is politics, so who knows how true to their word they will be when faced with the prospect of power and influence. More so, some of the “ruling” out statements seem to be in the vein of “we will not just make up the numbers and mindlessly enter into a coalition with the DPJ” which seem rather obvious in their own way – but offer some wiggle room. That being said,  the leaders of the political parties have been straining a bit too stridently for what is sensible to me in making the point that the DPJ must change if they were to even consider working with them (ringing most hollow coming from New Komeito I have to say!).

I frankly don’t understand this dynamic, even if I was to accept that the DPJ was as bad as claimed. Two major reasons based on one incredibly obvious insight. You want to have influence. Especially if you are a young party.

At the end of the day, everyone loves winners, including voters. Also, I suspect the public are in no place to do anything more than kick the tyres of the current DPJ government, given concerns with electoral and societal stability going forward. By ruling out having a positive stake in power post-election you essentially cede ground to your fellow 3rd pole ‘partners’ who may well want to have a say. This is reason 1. Reason 2 is, that, while in some opinion polls or estimations the DPJ may not have enough to get past 60 seats (or 54) now, when push comes to shove as long as Kan et al show a steady hand, those wavering are very likely to on the day vote for stability. This might mean a large-scale deserting of voters from the moderate 3rd pole parties. It might mean the DPJ very well gets their 60 seats without having to break a sweat. It is a tough balancing act, but you could offer your voters principles, and influence, even if it is only a bit of each. Even a willingness to enter into an agreement, if not a formal coalition could do the trick here.

It is possible that I am completely missing something about Japanese political culture. In NZ, where we have a similar mixed voting system, in the run up to an election, all bets are off, even to a considerable degree amongst current coalition partners. The smaller parties have absolutely no qualms with criticizing either of the two major parties and appending their criticism with “and only with a vote for x party will you get a principled, party of conscience to keep the government honest”. From what I understand Japanese are no less tactical voters than NZers, so I do not see why this kind of tactic can’t work. Even if you do have this understanding, and are open to working with government after the election, to not allude to this is only to your party’s own detriment in situations like this. Perhaps this kind of thought process would be considered bad taste if put so forthrightly in Japan. Maybe. I do think in the long-term, especially if Japan continues to maintain a Westminster style system with mixed PR and electoral district votes, and especially if a bipolar party structure forms with a few “3rds” thrown in for good balance, that the electorate is going to have to drop their squeamishness about these discussions. If this is what it is of course, and not just political incompetence, or more likely, an inability to truly accept how the lay of the land has truly changed since August 2009.

Update: seems that the DPJ is taking matters into its own hands and told (jp) “Your Party” they are looking at them for help after the election. Your Party’s response was basically that their bottom line for any discussions with anyone was reform of the civil service, and reduction in the number of MPs. In fact I was reading earlier on today that YP’s long term goal is get rid of the House of Councillors. If the two parties respectively held this line -with DPJ stating that YP is the best of the non-DPJ bunch, and YP politely denying anything specific and staying on message with their core policy reforms, this could work out not so bad for YP, in my opinion at least.

2 thoughts on “The DPJ has no friends.

  1. There’s a basic difference between established 3rd parties like New Komeito, and newcomers like Everyone’s Party. The reasoning you do above applies to established parties. A completely new party, on the other hand, has a single, overriding problem: they have yet to build a stable, enduring identity in the minds of the electorate. Nobody is really sure who they are and what they stand for – what the principles and slogans actually mean in practice – until they have been around for a few electoral cycles.

    Watanabe’s brainchild and the other new parties simply can not afford a formal coalition with any of the established parties at this point, no matter how close they are on the political map. They need to build their own brand as something distinct from the established alternatives, and going into coalition makes that impossible.

    And until they have built an identity of their own, going into coalition is pretty close to a disaster. If they do, they risk having their fledging identity be completely swamped by the much stronger, established coalition partners. They lose their individual identity in the minds of voters to become simply another part of the established party they work with.

    • The problem of associating with established parties is certainly an issue for all minor parties for PR or semi-PR systems, and they certainly need to tread carefully. I do recognise that – hence why I suggested there is not a need to go as far as a formal coalition. Coalition govts can also build in agreements on which issues that you reserve the right to disagree on as a party. May have implications for cabinet formation of course.

      That said, not all of them are like the SDP is being by definition anti-establishment (with the 1994 coalition with the LDP helping mightily to kill them off in their previous more vigorous incarnation), so I wonder if being this intransigent is necessary. After all, you could easily argue that with 3 years in between this election and the next, that they run the risk of becoming irrelevant, fading into obscurity, enshrining their status as minor parties, but nothing more. I would have thought the key to ensuring this does not happen would a. first of all be in getting as many votes as possible from independent voters, and b. then using those votes in order to exert influence.

      I guess ultimately it depends on what you see their motivations to be. Watanabe in particular, as with Masuzoe, certainly are aiming for bigger things, I would have thought. I guess the other issue is that with the DPJ likely to reduce the HoR and HoC PR seats, then they probably don’t have the time to worry too much about building the brand over a long time as solely a PR party at first, like many Green parties in North-Western Europe and NZ have. (who again are almost by definition anti-establishment and have much larger costs involved in the coalition calculation).

      So yes I certainly think it is a huge risk – but with skilled campaigning, some policy concessions extracted, and management of your brand in a coalition or in support of a minority government, I don’t think it is fatal – and I think that it is a risk you almost have to take, given the fast changing electoral dynamics.

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