The political landscape in Japan has been dominated by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for over 60 years, with the party having held power almost continuously since its formation in 1955. This longevity is remarkable in what is ostensibly a vibrant democracy with regular free and fair elections. So how has the LDP managed to maintain its grip on power for so long?
Political analysts point to several key factors, including the circumstances surrounding the LDP’s creation as well as favorable election rules and rural voter demographics. The LDP was formed in 1955 from a merger of two conservative parties – the Liberal Party and the Japan Democratic Party. This union was actively encouraged by the U.S., who saw the LDP as a bulwark against communism in the early Cold War period.
In its early decades, the LDP oversaw Japan’s rapid post-war economic growth and benefited from strong rural support. An electoral system weighted towards less populous rural districts, where the LDP was popular, also worked in the party’s favor. Factional battles within the “big tent” LDP ensured change happened from within rather than regime change at the ballot box.
This stable “1955 system” finally came undone in 1993 when LDP defectors joined opposition parties to form a coalition government. However, this only lasted a year before collapsing, and the LDP was return to power in 1994. Nevertheless, electoral reforms passed under the alternative coalition government paved the way for genuine two-party competition.
When the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept the LDP from power in 2009 after over 50 years of dominance, it seemed Japanese politics had changed for good. However, the inexperienced DPJ government struggled to govern effectively in the face of huge challenges like the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Voter dissatisfaction saw the LDP return decisively to power in 2012 under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. They have increased their Diet majority in every election since, despite persistent corruption scandals and controversies over things like constitutional reform.
So while the LDP’s continued dominance owes something to favorable structural factors, ultimately Japanese voters see them as a source of stability and competence compared to the untested opposition.
The Withering of the Postwar Left
Japanese politics in the early postwar era was actually dominated by the left, with the Japan Socialist Party holding power briefly from 1947-1948. However, the postwar left began to fracture in the mid 1950’s due to ideological splits within the socialist movement, as well as active measures taken by the U.S. to undermine leftist forces during the Cold War period.
The U.S. sponsored the merger of conservative parties into the LDP in 1955 not just as a bulwark against communism, but also to fracture the left and cement conservative control. The U.S. also used its influence to install staunch anti-communists like Nobusuke Kishi as Japanese leaders in the critical early postwar years.
The left suffered a further blow when the leader of the Japan Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma, was assassinated by a right-wing nationalist in 1960. This shocking event deepened existing divisions among leftists groups and made it hard for them to present a credible alternative to conservative LDP rule.
While opposition parties like the Democratic Party of Japan had temporary electoral success in 2009, they failed to institute sustained change. Today, Japan’s left wing remains weak and fragmented between several small parties without the vision or discipline to break the LDP’s dominance.
Thus over 60 years of almost uninterrupted LDP rule has seen the progressive policies and energies which blossomed early in the postwar era steadily suppressed in favor of conservative stability. Despite periodic hopes that two-party democratic competition has finally arrived, the underlying structures that enabled LDP dominance remain largely intact. Without internal reform allowing genuine intraparty competition for control, the LDP status quo seems set to continue.