Fumio Kishida
Fumio Kishida is Japan’s next prime minister after winning the leadership race at Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party Image Credit: Muhammed Nahas/Gulf News

When people think of elections these days, they tend to look to Russia or Iran. 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 when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose a successor to Yoshihide Suga, it anointed Fumio Kishida 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?

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

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

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

“They didn’t necessarily like each other or get along, but they were engineered into one megaparty,” 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 who sought the party’s top position.

Sanae Takaichi, 60, a hard-line conservative. Fumio Kishida, 64, a moderate who talks about a “new capitalism.” Seiko Noda, 61, who supports greater rights for women and other groups. Taro Kono, 58, who wants to phase out the nuclear power industry. (Fumio Kishida won the race to lead LDP, putting him on course to become the next prime minister).

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.

A landslide victory

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.

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

The Democrats’ promise to close a US base on Okinawa also proved difficult to fulfil. 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.

Staying in power

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.

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.

Voter apathy

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

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

Independents don’t see much point in voting.

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 roll-out 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.”

Motoko Rich specialises in Japanese politics, society, gender and the arts

-The New York Times.