Japanese Elections: Conservative Victory amidst the Lowest Turnout Ever

The general elections in Japan, held on December 16, 2012, led to the victory of the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), amidst the lowest voter turn-out in Japanese history. The ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) lost 173 seats and is now down to only 57. It only got 22.81 percent in the electoral districts around the country, a reduction of about 25 percent compared to the 47.43 percent it won in 2009. The LDP, on the other hand, got only slightly more votes than last time (43.01 percent compared to 38.68 percent) while it increased its number of seats from 176 to 294.

The DPJ will now be only slightly bigger than the Japan Restoration Party, founded by Toro Hashimoto, a right-wing populist mayor of Osaka, which didn’t exist until a few months ago. The JRP secured 11.64 percent of the votes in districts and 20.5 percent in the electoral blocs, thus assuring a total of 54 seats. Other right-wing forces such as New Komeito and the Your Party won respectively 31 and 18 seats, both significantly adding to their seat counts, mostly relying on regional block votes.[1] The ‘environmentalist’ Tomorrow Party of Yukio Kada, governor of Shiga Prefecture, which was formed only this past month but had secured 61 MPs by internal peddling in the Diet (Japan's legislature) got destroyed by winning around 5 percent of the vote (in both district and bloc sections), being reduced to 9 seats.

The main party of the Left, the Communist Party, saw a reasonable growth in votes by securing more than 4,700,289 votes (7.88 percent) in the districts, compared to the 4.22 percent it had won in 2009. Its performance in the regional blocs saw a slight drop from 7.03 to 6.17 percent. Overall, it lost one seat to leave only 8 MPs now. Significantly, the JCP was front-runner in nine electoral districts, which is quite unprecedented. The Social Democratic Party continued its demise by winning less than one percent in districts and 2.38 in blocks which translated to two seats, down from the five it won in 2009.

Together with the victory of the right-wing in the South Korean Presidential Elections, which also took place in December, the Japanese results have led to a bout of disillusionment in Northeast Asia. Commentators speak of a sharp turn to the right which seems to be unlike the trends elsewhere in the world. The question has to be asked: What is happening in Japan and what accounts for these results?

To find the answer to these questions we have to first go back a few years, to 2009.

The 2009 ‘Miracle’

It was less than four years ago, in the aftermath of the 2009 General Elections, when the Japanese masses were filled with hopes of a new beginning. The 55-year-old rule of the conservative LDP, which had ruled Japan almost continuously since the Second World War (save for an 11-month period), had come to an end. The main bourgeois opposition, the Democratic Party (DPJ), under the leadership of Yukio Hatoyama, now held the reins. This historic event happened less than a year after Obama’s victory in the US Presidential Elections and the similarities between the two situations were not limited to the name of the victorious parties. If Obama’s win was to signal, in the minds of millions, an end to the Bush era and a new opening, that of the DPJ was seen as a knock-out punch not only against the LDP but against the aristocratic-style oppressive system that has characterized Japanese capitalism and state.

The DPJ’s victory was even called a ‘democratic revolution’ by some. It had, after all, (similar to Obama’s campaign) followed a massive turn-out of 70 percent, the highest in Japanese history, with many voters mobilized from the usually excluded sections of Japanese society, such as the youth or women.

It wasn’t only the genuine hatred of the LDP by the masses but the left-populist platform of the DPJ that had made such an excited participation possible. In the aftermath of the capitalist crisis of 2008, which hit Japan especially hard, this platform included not only throwing out the traditional bureaucrats but also a myriad of reforms like toll-free highways, free high schools, income support for farmers, monthly allowances for job seekers in training, a higher minimum wage, boosting child support and tax cuts. Also significant was nodding to a long-held, traditional demand of the Left: Shutting down the American military bases in the Okinawa Islands.

Now, in the aftermath of last week’s general elections, the mood could not be more different. After the abject failure of DPJ to carry out any of its promises, we witnessed the lowest turn-out in Japanese history and a return of the old and corrupt LDP to power. A mere 59.32% percent of the electorate took part in the elections, which means a 10 percent overall reduction in the turnout but this was even steeper amongst the youth.

To add insult to injury, the new head of the LDP, now Prime Minister-elect, is Shinzo Abe, who had a disastrous previous turn in 2006. Abe is somewhat of a Japanese Berlusconi, known not only by his ultra-right gestures, but also by his recurrent scandals and blunders. Like the Italian tragicomic crook, he will have to rule in a parliamentary coalition with many far-right forces.

The DPJ’s Time in Power

Behind the LDP’s victory and the rise of the right-wing lies the dismally low turnout which was, as stated above, the lowest in recorded history. The LDP hardly increased its votes and in major urban areas it actually dropped. It was the massive abstention on the part of the masses, especially the youth, which made this possible. Not only was there a low turn-out but people seemed to consciously be angry at the entire political establishment. Is this, then, a sign of political inaction and apathy amongst Japanese youth?

Before being seduced by such ‘easy’ answers, we have to remember that, in the first place, it was the massive and active opposition of the masses that brought the DPJ government into crisis and finally brought it down. As we predicted at the time, the DPJ government was bound to be rife with crisis. Japanese capitalism, the third biggest in the world, has been in a state of crisis ever since the end of its ‘miraculous’ boom in the late 1980’s. The past 20 years are usually called the ‘lost decades’ in Japan. Its public debt has now surpassed 200% of GDP. Under these conditions, the bourgeois DPJ had no room to implement any of its promises (which were estimated to cost a minimum of 200 billion dollars.) The only road ahead was that of cuts and attacks on living standards.

As soon as Yukio Hatoyama took office, his crisis began. When he tried to make the slightest move against the US military bases in Okinawa (by pledging to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma), US Imperialism and its local dependent bosses in Japan reacted strongly. He had to quickly retract to win their favour. This led to massive demonstrations and the disgust of the masses who had just voted him in. His approval rating fell from 75 to 20 percent in a matter of weeks. He resigned in June 2010 after only eight months in office.

Then it was the turn of DPJ’s second PM, Naoto Kan, who bourgeois celebrated as a “Kan-Do” man who was to solve the government crisis. Previously the finance minister, Kan was to ‘renew’ the government’s relations with big business by assuring them that none of the ‘costly’ promises of the party’s electoral platform were to be implemented. Kan’s premiership, however, was also a government of crisis from day one. The nature of the DPJ (explained in more detail below) as a Party formed in 1998 by a coalition of many splintered bourgeois groups and the ashes from the corpse of the once-strong Socialist Party, meant a minimum level of cohesion. After every major crisis, more rats would flee the sinking ship.

In March 2011, less than a year into his government, Kan was in the middle of a funding scandal over foreign contributions, when the horrific 9.0 Richter-scale earthquake struck north eastern Japan, leading to the massive tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. This catastrophe led to no less than 19,000 innocent deaths and the forced evacuation of more than 160,000.

tsunami damange Sendai Airport-Roberto De VidoPhoto: Roberto De VidoFar from a ‘natural’ incident, the Fukushima tragedy revealed how corrupt and ineffective Japanese capitalism had become, with its ‘miraculous’ Golden Days long past. The Japanese masses responded by a vast wave of outrage and anger. Happening a few months after the outbreak of the Arab Revolutions, which had shaken the world to its foundations, a new protest movement sprung up with the participation of hundreds of thousands on the streets. The movement continued for months on end with numbers unseen since the height of the mass movements in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. The initial demands for the shutting down of the nuclear plants soon grew to larger demands to address the state of society as a whole.

By September 2011, Kan was forced to resign as well and after a lot of internal squabbling in the DJP, Yoshihiko Noda succeeded to the throne as the new Prime Minister, the third in two years. Noda’s main distinction was his lack of any. He was able to calm the factions remaining inside the DPJ (as many MPs and local bosses were leaving in numbers) but it was understood that he'd have to call the elections soon. His job was, in effect, damage control before the voting.

Noda continued the reversal of DPJ promises. He further cut child payments and even pushed through a bill doubling the regressive sales tax that hurts working people. The latter was a task that the LDP-held Ministry of Finance had been unable to push through for more than a decade! He also brought the country closer to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, committing to more ‘free market’ policies.

Finally, it was in mid-November 2012 when Mr. Noda dissolved the parliament and went to the polls which led to the elections this month, a poll that was disastrous for the DPJ. Noda has already resigned as the future of the DPJ as a political party is itself in question.

Absence of Genuine Alternatives: The Failure of Reformism and Opportunities for the Far-right

The super-low turnout in the elections wasn’t the result of a general mood of apathy in Japanese society. Our correspondent, from the city of Nishinomiya, reports that the mood within the youth in cities like Nishinomiya, Osaka and Tokyo, rather than that of passive apathy was that of an angry rejection due to the absolute lack of alternatives in these elections now that the DPJ had shown its true colours.

The Communist Party, currently the main political organization of Japanese workers, under the reformist leadership of Kazuo Shii, who has led the Party since 2000, hardly offered an alternative. The modest increase it got in the votes (especially its more than 7 percent of the votes in the regions of Tokyo and Kinki, where the major urban areas lie) was much less than the existing potential. Had the Communists stood on a revolutionary socialist program offering a bold way out of the current impasse, they would have been able to rise as a major force, filling the obvious vacuum. But the JCP followed its tired reformist line with words like ‘revolution’ or ‘socialism’ being absolutely abandoned.

It is this failure of reformism, not the apathy of the masses or their turn to the right, that is responsible for the conservative victory and the rise of the far-right populists. We have written elsewhere (http://www.marxist.com/japan-china-island-dispute-imperialist-tensions.htm) about the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. These few uninhabited rocks are claimed by both Japan and China and the dispute over them has reached boiling point with demagogues on both sides stirring nationalist feelings over the issue. The ruling classes of both Japan and China use this phony ‘dispute’ to distract the masses from the real issues at hand. In Japan, this was primarily banked on by Hashimoto, right-wing Mayor of Osaka, and his newly founded Japan Restoration Party. JRP was founded only in September 2012, a few months ago, and through stirring nationalist feelings was able to win 11.64 percent of district and 20.5 percent of the block votes. This has translated to 54 seats, a result which worries many in Japan due to the Party’s open far-right positions and its musings about Japan’s fascistic past. This is even stronger on the part of the Party’s leader, Shintaro Ishihara, ex-governor of Tokyo and an open arch-hawk and China-baiter. Still this shouldn’t lead to alarmist cries about the rise of ‘fascism.’ When looking closer at the results, we can see that JRP’s performance is not that impressive either. It got 30 percent of the vote in the Kinki block (which includes Osaka) where Hashimoto, naturally, has a base. It was able to gain a minimum percentage to win a few other MPs from each of the other 10 regional blocks. But it hardly won any district seats on its own. It only captured two new seats (apart from those held by the MPs that had switched to it before the elections) and one of them was in coalition with the Your Party. In many districts, it ran a common candidate with the LDP, which shows the depth to which the latter has sunk. That a figure like Abe, described above, won the leadership of the LDP, against all odds, (and against the wishes of the more sober-minded sections of the bourgeoisie) is also testament to this.

The JRP’s rise should still be rightly seen as a cause for concern. In a situation where the parties of the Left don’t offer bold programs, the demagogues of the right can come forward with the proven ruse of stoking nationalist feelings. It is only a Socialist program that can stem the rise of the right.

The Legacy of the Socialist Party

While the extent of the betrayal of the DPJ (of its own promises) has been somewhat shocking, Marxists don’t find themselves surprised by this one little bit. As explained above, the DPJ is a bourgeois party, bound to the capitalist system and Japanese big business. Not only can’t it stand in the interests of the masses, it was proved that it can’t even lift a finger in front of the American imperialists. It is the fate of the post-war Japanese bourgeoisie to be absolutely servile to their masters in Washington.

But the futile shifts between the LDP and the DPJ need not be the only choice facing the Japanese masses. In fact, for most of Japan’s post-war history this hasn’t been the case.

It is an oft-repeated fact that the LDP had single-handedly ruled Japan ever since the war, a rule that finished in 2009, except for a 11-month period. What is not mentioned as much is that during all this time the second strongest party was the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP.)

It was the rapid boom in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the fantastic rise of Japanese carmakers, steel producers, shipyards and electronics companies, that had gave the LDP a breathing space. For decades, the ‘free market’ was effectively suspended in Japan as the state, and in particular, the (in)famous Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), told big business where to invest. The LDP’s support for public works and the development of the economy helped to keep it in power. But at the same time, Japan saw a massive proletarianisation. One of the world’s strongest proletariats bloomed and the trade unions proliferated along with industry, with many adopting militant methods and socialist politics. These trade union organizations were the backbone of the JSP which had a strong left wing, significantly to the left of the JCP. The JSP was a party rife with crisis as well with its leftist and rightist factions splitting off every now and then. The left of the Party had many courageous elements but unfortunately its lack of a consistent Marxist program left it prone to ‘pragmatic’ compromises and denied it a firm basis.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and with the rise of reactionary forces on a worldwide basis, many Communist and Socialist parties of the left went down the road of compromise and liquidation. The same fate, alas, begot the JSP. In its April 1990 convention, the main party of the Japanese working class dropped its commitment to ‘socialist revolution’ and limited its goal to ‘social democracy.’ This was done under the leadership of the long-ruling chairwoman, Takako Doi. This was supposed to be a ‘pragmatic’ move to help the Party at the polls. Doi had already established some credibility by significantly increasing the Party’s vote in the February 1990 elections (by 51 to 136 thus keeping the JSP as the second biggest Party.)

The newly-found ‘pragmatism’ didn’t end at the Party convention. The early 1990’s saw a fantastic opportunity for the JSP. A bust property and stock-market bubble ended the ‘Miracle’ phase of the capitalist boom in the country. The LDP had no resonance now that the boom had receded and it quickly fell into its deathbed. A few months before the next elections in 1993, 44 MPs headed by Ichiro Ozawa, left the sinking ship of the LDP and formed the Japan Renewal Party. The JSP had a great opportunity to come forward as a true alternative to the corrupt shenanigans of Japanese capitalism. However, it was lured by Ozawa and joined a non-principled ‘eight-party alliance’ with all the anti-LDP parties (with the major exception of the JCP). This ‘alliance’ even included the religious-based Komeito, formed by the Buddhist sect Sokka Gakkai.

Riding on the masses' disgust, the alliance was promoted into power. Morihiro Hosokawa, a long-time LDP governor of Kumamoto Prefecture, became Prime Minister with 6 Socialist ministers serving in his cabinet. But, not unlike the DPJ government of the 2009 victory, the government quickly entered a crisis. A coalition government that had both the support of major Japanese big business and RENGO, the largest trade union confederation in the country, was naturally not able to satisfy both sides.

Hosokawa was forced to resign after a few months, in April 1994, amidst a personal scandal. He was then replaced by Ozawa’s right-hand man, Tsotumo Hata, who didn’t fare any better. It was then that the JSP carried out the most fatal act of its history. It moved to the parliamentary overthrow of the Hata government and installed the first Socialist Prime Minister of Japan… by allying with the old, hated LDP!

In an obscene event that was hard to believe, the JSP’s Murayama was crowned as the Prime Minister with hated LDP figures sitting in his ‘Grand Coalition’ cabinet. Murayama quickly betrayed even the most sacred demand of the JSP, opposition to the ‘Security Pact’ with the Americans, saying that it was ‘constitutional’ and thus there was nothing wrong with it!

This was clearly the death knell for the Party. Murayama had to resign in less than two years and by the next elections, in 1996, the JSP had been transformed to the ‘Social Democratic Party’ with most of it MPs joining the predecessors of what became, in 1998, the Democratic Party. In the elections, the ‘Social Democrats’ were punished and reduced to 4 seats while LDP triumphantly came back to power. The Democratic Party maintained the support of the unions but it became a thoroughly bourgeois formation, akin to the similarly named Party in Italy that had risen from the ashes of the once-strong Communist Party. The Ozawa group of ex-LDP MPs joined the DPJ in 2003 for this liquidation process to be completed.

Which way forward for Japanese Workers and the Left

The past two decades of Japanese politics is once-more proof of the bankruptcy of reformism. The old JSP got destroyed precisely when it shifted to the right. Ironically, under the ‘pragmatic’ justification of attempting to get more ‘electable,’ not only it didn’t get elected but it got destroyed.

youth-radicalisation-in-japan-2The general shift to the left in Japanese society is not a secret to anybody. Just pick up any Wiki-leaked report of the American Embassy to see how worried the strategists of capital are about the increasing popularity of the Communist Party, which counts within its card-carrying members close to half-a-million people with many having joined the Party and its youth wing in the last two to three years. Symptomatic of this is the massive sales of Marxist literature, even in Manga formats. The anti-nuclear movement showed that Japanese youth and workers are ready to fight if they are given an option.

RENGO and the other unions should immediately stop their support for the DPJ which has shown itself to be no better than the other bourgeois parties. There is already turmoil inside the union ranks and demands to go back to the revolutionary legacies of the Socialist Party.

Last week’s election results will inevitably lead to turmoil inside the JCP as well. Shi’s reformist leadership has shown itself incapable of using the great opportunities and rising to the occasion. After 12 years of failing to improve the Party’s lot, Shi must go. The JCP needs a revolutionary socialist leadership and a return to the principles of its 1946 program, known as the “Draft Constitution of The People’s Republic of Japan,” when it stood for such radial goals as the abolition of the Imperial system and nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy.

Abe’s government will be one of crisis after crisis after crisis. He will tread the waters carefully at first and perhaps give a concession or two, especially until the upper-house elections in July, when it hopes to wrest the majority there from the DPJ. Abe ran on populist plans with policies such as reviving the massive public-works projects that were prevalent at the height of Japanese capitalism, but with the current levels of debt and with the sinking economy, this will be simply impossible. Abe has already ‘calmed’ the financial markets by promising to beat deflation and raise the regressive consumption tax. He will be pressured from the right-wing to, as The Economist put it, “radically deregulate the economy” and continue along the path that Noda had already started.

Th inevitable attacks of the Abe government will be met by resistance and a fight back by the strongest force in Japanese society, the mighty Japanese proletariat. The workers’ organizations are mostly intact and any move toward privatization and attacks on workers’ rights will not come easy. The youth and women, desperate due to the deadlock of society and the return of the hated LDP, will come out en masse to face this government over this or that particular issue.

Now, more than ever, the Japanese workers need a political force standing on a genuine socialist program to show the way out of this impasse. Given that kind of leadership, great things are to be expected from the Land of the Rising Sun.



[1]. In Japan, every voter votes twice. Once in his/her electoral district for a specific candidate, results of which are determined on a first-past-the-post basis, and once in one of Japan’s 11 regional blocks for a Party list, where the seats are handed out based on proportional representation.