Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Socialist Party Slides Toward Extinction

Though it hardly seems worthwhile to report on the political decline of a micro-party, the political news of the day is Social Democratic Party leader Fukushima Mizuho's certain reelection as the head of her party. Certain as in she is running unopposed and there will, as a consequence, be no vote for party leader at the party's congress on February 24.

Fukushima's victory comes as a result of both party rules and the SDP's continuing failure at the polls. Party rules state that a candidate for party leader must have the nominations of at least 4 Diet members. With only 10 Diet members in total, the SDP has only just enough members for two competing candidates, if every single Diet member plays along. Fukushima nailed down her fourth nominee on the 20th. Party policy chief Abe Tomoko, who had wanted to challenge Fukushima, managed to win the support of three of her colleagues but failed to win the endorsement of the last remaining Diet member before the nomination deadline today.

With her failure to gain enough support to challenge Fukushima, with whom she has clashed in terms of the SDP's unwillingness to work with other parties, Abe is left with a rather unpalatable choice: either stick around with Fukushima glaring daggers at her all the time or leave the party. "As a politician I have a decision to make and when I make it I will hold a press conference," was Abe's comment to the press (J). Unfortunately for Abe, she is a proportional seat member, meaning that she can only serve as independent, since those elected on a party list who defect from their party can only found a new one, not join an existing one. Abe cannot make the journey from relevance to irrelevance to relevance again trod by district seat holder Tsujimoto Kiyomi who lost her sub-cabinet post when the DSP left the ruling coalition over the Futenma relocation dispute. In revenge, Tsujimoto left the DSP, sat as an independent for a while to cool off, then joined the Democratic Party of Japan.

If Abe leaves, the full Diet membership of the DSP will drop down to nine seats, putting it at a par with the brand new and already much-loathed Kizuna party. If her three supporters in the leadership fight decide to leave with her, the party will be left with three House of Representatives members and three House of Councillors members, leaving it perilously close to the five Diet member limit for political organizations that wish to be identified as parties.

Even without this nasty split over party leadership, the Socialists and indeed all the micro-parties were already in peril. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan has said it will submit a bill in the next session eliminating 80 of the 180 proportional seats in the Diet, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure but really as a sop to its own rank-and-file, who are ticked off at the party leadership for not making the least effort to carry out the proposals listed in the DPJ's 2009 manifesto and indeed backtracking on almost all of them. The measure has very little chance of passing, despite its attractiveness to the main opposition party the Liberal Democratic Party, since the new bill would decimate the numbers of the LDP's ally, the New Komeito Party. Any reduction of the number of proportional seats, however, would imperil the continued existence of the SDP in the House of Representatives. Simulations show that if the 80 seat reduction were to be carried out, all of the Socialist Party proportional seats, including the one Abe sits in, would vanish.

The disappearance of the Socialists would, of course, end a grand chapter in the history of Japanese politics, one with the cautionary lesson of never giving up one's ideals and policies for the brass ring of power. Once the number two party in the Diet, locked in a seemingly eternal love-hate relationship with the dominant LDP, institutionalized in what became known as "the 1955 system," the Socialists were already in alarming decline after the establishment of center-left alternatives to the LDP in the 1993 election. Real rot and rebellion did not set in, however, until after the Socialists made what they were to find out was really the deal of a lifetime: an alliance with the LDP that had a clueless Murayama Tomiichi become the first Socialist PM since the unifications of the two main parties in 1955. In order to win this prize, the Socialists shed virtually all of their major points of difference with the LDP's left-leaning members. Bereft of the mantle of the party of persons of conscience (because clearly the Socialists did not have one), the party rapidly lost its voting base to the rising DPJ.

The passing of the Socialists into history would not be of much consequence save that in its brief time as the coalition partner of the ruling DPJ-- and its departure from the ruling coalition over policy -- the SDP had regained some of the luster of being the party of conscience. It was its members, not the members of the DPJ, who really tried to find a workable alternative to the move of Futenma to Henoko promised by DPJ party leader and prime minister Hatoyama Yukio. When the coalition voted to backtrack on Hatoyama's promise to find an alternate site to Henoko, the SDP pulled itself out of the coalition (E).

Sic transit gloria Showa mundi...


Jan Moren said...

I have not the energy to write it up properly, but there is a very relevant discussion in Swedish media about the fall of the once-so-powerful Social Democrats. They held power for 47 years in a row, and could regularly count on voting support exceeding 40%.

Today they've lost two elections badly, are at the 25% level and still sinking, and beset by infighting and leadership issues.

But the thing is, they never actually did anything wrong. They just didn't change; their framing of Sweden did not evolve when Sweden itself changed. Their division of people into working class and others made sense when most people identified with the working class; today most of their previous voters identify with the middle class and societal divisions are cleaved along different lines.

All a long-winded way of saying that while SPD certainly made a deal with the devil when they entered into that coalition, it is far from certain that was the only or even main reason for their decline. Similarly, both the LDP and DPJ risk fading into irrelevance when their shared view of Japan and Japanese society no longer matches reality as seen by their putative voters.

The Chrysanthemum Sniffer said...

Isn't the change in voting systems a major factor here? SMD voting systems tend to favor parties with a moderate message, as candidates have to appeal to entire districts rather than narrow interest groups or ideological radicals. Nevertheless, with no threshold barring microparties on the proportional list, I don't think we'll see them disappear completely.

Anonymous said...

Well, the seat reduction could come about if New Komeito joins the LDP and DPJ in a new grand unifying party. Not sure how likely that is to actually come about anymore, though.