Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Two for the price of one – Results in Germany and Portugal

On Sunday 27th September, we saw, amongst other events, the national elections in Germany and Portugal.

My apologies in the lateness of this post and that I haven’t produced an article prior to the Portugal election (this is due in part to my own state of health and lack of readily available sources on Portuguese politics).

Clearly the Grand Coalition is not going to continue, with the CDU able to form a coalition with their preferred partners the FDP. Although there is likely to be something of a shift, particularly on economic policy, the continuation of the CDU in government will lead to a certain degree of consistency, marked particularly in Merkel’s pragmatic approach, along with, to some extent, constraining forces within the coalition such as the CSU. In saying this, the FDP have enjoyed substantial gains, giving them nearly 3/10ths of the seats (93) in the new coalition, and thus potentially more leverage than they have enjoyed in past governments (their best previous result being 79 seats in 1990).

The damage to the SPD has been so great as to reduce them to merely 2/3 of the size of their CDU/CSU rivals. In terms of potential coalitions, it is interesting that, even without personality preferences, neither of the SPD options outside a Grand Coalition, a traffic light coalition or red-red-green variant, would be able to achieve a majority unlike in 2005 (307 or 290 seats respectively, out of a required 312).

Whilst I do not necessarily subscribe to the view of some commentators that this defeat marks the end of the SPD, the poor result would seem to suggest that, short of the effect of ‘events’ and governing crises, we could be looking at another extended period of CDU/FDP rule, like that of the 1980s and 90s, with no workable alternative coalition. If they are to recover, the SPD will also have to work hard to recover voters that have gone to the Left Party or Greens or even simply not bothered to vote.

In Portugal, by contrast, we have seen the ruling Socialist party re-elected, but without a majority in the parliament. Although there are other left-wing parties with sufficient representation to give them a majority, a coalition here seems unlikely. It is more likely that we will see a series of informal issue-by-issue arrangements such as occurred between 1995 and 1999 (inspired by this, I will, at some point in the future, write a fuller comment on minority governments).

It is even possible that we may see such a minority government situation emerging in Germany in the future, bearing in mind the multiple party blocs, some of which are increasingly limited in their choice of potential coalition partners.

(comment on last Sunday's Greek election will follow in due course)

Sunday, 20 September 2009

A marriage of inconvenience: the politics of Grand Coalition in 21st century Germany

We have seen some strange celebrity marriages in our time, but there are arguably few political marriages that appear to the outsider to be stranger than that of the Grand Coalition, such as has been between the Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) in Germany since 2005. Such coalitions, usually, but not exclusively, between a country’s two main parties of different political ideologies hasn’t happened in the UK since 1945, but has been more prevalent over the last few years, with the Netherlands, Austria, Bulgaria, and (until recently) Iceland all currently run by such governments.

But what is involved in such a political marriage of perceived inconvenience and how will this impact the upcoming Federal election on 27th September? In considering this, let us take a brief look at the whole process of this German Grand Coalition, from its formation, to its implementation, to its dissolution, before considering the future.

Formation of the Grand Coalition

Before forming a Grand Coalition during normal times (when not facing a great crisis such as economic collapse or war), parties will often engage in a crucial preparatory step; trying to find another solution. A Grand Coalition formed in normal times usually represents a failure of partisan political competition to produce any other viable government (one possible exception being Switzerland where the four largest political parties have governed together since 1959 in a ‘magic formula’).

Once other alternatives are exhausted, it then becomes a matter of surmounting the normal obstacles to forming a coalition, including, amongst others, allocating cabinet posts and deciding a common platform.

Cabinet portfolios are important, both in terms of forming a team that can work together and in providing individual parties with the means to influence the implementation of specific policies they consider important (such as the Greens holding the Environment portfolio between 1998 and 2005).

In most Liberal Democratic parliamentary systems, the head of government, the minister of foreign affairs, and the minister of finance are seen as the top cabinet seats. Coalitions formed in Germany have tended to give the leader and finance roles to the main party, with the junior coalition partner receiving the foreign affairs ministry along with a number of other ministries proportionate to their seats in the coalition We see examples of this both in FDP leader Walter Scheel from 1969 to 1974 and Green party leader Joshka Fischer from 1998 to 2005 (whilst exceptions include FDP leaders Heinz Starke and Rolf Dahlgrün who were Finance ministers between 1961 and 1966).

It is more difficult to resolve when both partners are almost equal in size. Indeed, one of the great stumbling blocks in 2005 was over which party should hold the leader’s (Chancellor) post. The CDU/CSU suggested their greater parliamentary size (226 to 222 seats) entitled them to lead, whilst the SPD argued that the CDU and CSU should be treated as separate entities. The resolution was a CDU Chancellor, but compensated the SPD by giving them both finance and foreign affairs, along with other important posts such as Justice and Labour (a total of 8 out of the 16 ministries).1

The reconciliation of manifestos is crucial and something that often helps build the trust required in a coalition. The more divergent the philosophies of the partners, the more difficult this is. In Germany the resulting programme included such measures as increasing the top rate of income tax directly contrary to CDU manifesto promises, and a stance generally against Turkish membership of the EU which the SPD hasn’t liked. Equally there are policies regarded as particularly unpopular, but both necessary and achievable in a grand coalition setup, such as a 3% rise in VAT, and no protection from dismissal for the first two years in employment. Once agreed upon, a platform is then formalised, in this case in a 140 page agreement, ‘Together for Germany – With Courage and Humanity’, and ratified by all parties involved as a form of contract. 2

Implementation of the Grand Coalition

Whilst the coalition’s sizeable lower house majority has not itself been challenged, we have seen clear internal divisions within parties, such as in the initial vote in 2005 when 1 in 9 of the coalition members in the Bundestag voted against Merkel becoming Chancellor. 3 Other examples may be seen in late 2007 when divisions arose over the minimum wage, and Franz Muentefering (SPD) left the cabinet in November (albeit for personal reasons) 4 , or more recently over tax cuts.5

Yet, whilst remaining unpopular in some quarters, the Coalition has been praised for its handling of the financial crisis, particularly in terms of targeting support. 6 The issue of unemployment was considered key in 2005. Obviously the economic crisis has led to sharp increases and necessitated changes in policy implementation; however, recent data has also shown surprise falls, albeit marginal, in unemployment, which some suggest has been aided by government initiatives such as the “‘Kurzarbeit’ scheme, which encourages firms to put their workers on part-time shifts rather than fire them”. 7 Regardless of the extent to which government participation has influenced the German economy, the Coalition has arguably still been able to benefit in some areas from the resulting outcomes.

One of the difficulties faced by grand coalition parties is balancing national cooperation with partisan politics in other electoral spheres. To some extent the Federalised structure of Germany mitigates this with parties in the regional assemblies (Lander) being able to seek re-election on their own administrative merit and (to some extent) genuinely localised policy platforms.

However, there are two factors which have helped undermine this: the first is the natural swing away from incumbent governments, which in this case has meant increased representation for the smaller parties; the second, is that control of regional governments in Germany help determine the composition of the upper house (Bundesrat) at a Federal level, thus further energising those voters seeking to express their opposition to the grand coalition. This has led to the Coalition losing its upper house majority in 2008, forcing subsequent reliance upon the FDP in key votes ever since.

Dissolution of the Grand Coalition

The time limit and conditions for ending any coalition, in theory, are set out when it is initially formed, usually occurring upon dissolution of the existing government prior to an electoral campaign. In practice, the mechanics of preparing for such a break, whether in selecting a party’s next candidate for chancellor, preparing a manifesto, or parties attempting to highlight ‘their particular contributions’, begins well before this.

It is, in one sense, a difficult election for the Grand Coalition partners. Both are the incumbents, limiting their scope to criticise government policy and to distance themselves from criticism. Both have to fight an election focused mainly on aspiration of what they ‘want to do’ in the future, be it tax cuts (CDU) or full employment (SPD), whilst trying to attack the plans presented by their former partners. Out of the two parties, the SPD appear to have come off worse from the Coalition: the effects from being in government continuously for the last 11 years, and sharing the last 4 with their main Conservative rivals, has arguably helped consolidate the strength of the Left Party (Die Linke) as an appealing left-wing alternative for their voters.8

Both parties have also been sizing up alternative partners whilst in government, once again hoping to get their preferred option at this election. In spite of being preferred partners, it may seem strange that recently we have seen several instances of the CDU/CSU and FDP quite visibly attacking each other. 9 Arguably, this is simply a normal part of partisan politics, and is important for three reasons: firstly, it aims to satisfy potential voters that there is no ‘secret deal’, and that their votes will impact the result; secondly, it aims to satisfy existing supporters that a party will stand up for issues that are particularly important for them, even in negotiating a potential coalition; thirdly, it acts as a form of psychological positioning, so that both sides are aware of the other’s feelings when it comes to the negotiating table after the election, as well as their particular priorities.

In reality, the FDP are likely to be happy to work with the CDU, having now not been in national government for the last 11 years, a long time for a group that had, up until 1998, participated in Federal governing coalitions for 41 of the previous 49 years.

The Future

Bearing all of this in mind, it is now worth asking ourselves what will follow this marriage of inconvenience.

Possible Outcomes
1) A CDU/FDP Coalition (or a Jamaica Coalition, but this is unlikely)
2) Traffic Light Coalition (pretty unlikely)
3) Continuation of the Grand Coalition (very unlikely)

1) A CDU/FDP Coalition
The most likely outcome. Both parties appear consistently strong in the polls, have been able to position themselves well, and have a long history of working together in Federal government. If they do not achieve an outright majority then the ‘Jamaica’ option exists of bringing the Green party into the coalition (with the party colours of Black, Yellow and Green representing the Jamaica flag). Whilst this seems unlikely, based on the Green refusal to work with the CDU in 2005, it is not entirely impossible; there are some examples of subsequent sub-national cooperation, such as the CDU/Green coalition formed in governing Hamburg since 2008. If it were to happen, it would almost certainly require a change of national leadership in one or both parties, on account of existing animosity.

2) Traffic Light Coalition
It is unlikely that the Red-Green option would be able to achieve a majority on their own, even with a good showing by the Green party. The SPD have found it difficult to get away from their position as an incumbent government in which they no longer appear to be the leaders. The FDP have also reaffirmed their 2005 decision not to work with the SPD and Greens.10 There has been some talk of a Red-Red-Green variant with the Left Party, based on their coalition with the SPD in Berlin since 2001. However, the SPD as a whole would be likely to find the demands that the Left Party would make on such national issues as foreign and economic policy unpalatable.11

3) Continuation of the Grand Coalition
If all other options fail, this could happen, but, if it does, I believe it would only result in more serious damage to both parties, haemorrhaging voters who feel they want a real alternative to defeat the incumbents. It may also appear impractical to form a coalition which, whilst holding considerable power in the lower house remained unable to command a majority in the upper on its own.


There is, I would suggest, a right time and place for grand coalitions. Whether, in light of the economic crisis, it was fortunate that such a coalition existed in Germany or not, it is too early to speculate on. It would seem clear however, that it should not continue for the interests both of the parties involved. However, nothing can be taken for granted, as was witnessed in 2005 when a clear CDU-FDP poll lead was whittled down, failing to produce a majority. Even recently, on the 30th August, the CDU suffered heavy losses in several Lander elections, leading to further doubts over the accuracy of national opinion polls.12 Yet any weakness here is not automatically balanced by SPD strength, with the Left Party also doing well in those elections. Neither side has ruled out returning again to the Grand Coalition. Disraeli once said that no government can long survive without a formidable opposition. Arguably, any that do survive ultimately create an opposition capable of destroying them politically. Even in a country where there remains a great spirit of consensus over such issues as the Social Market economy, it may well be that a continued Grand Coalition increases the number of disenchanted and disaffected voters, opponents far more formidable to a government than any political party.

(Photograph is of the current leaders of Germany's Grand Coalition holding their first cabinet meeting of 2006. Source:

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Which bridge now? The aftermath of Norway's election

With most of the votes counted, negotiations have already begun between the future bridge builders of Norwegian politics.

For the latest on the results, see:

The parliamentary landscape has certainly moved:
• It looks like the Red-Green coalition has retained its majority, if only just (assuming that the participants are willing to continue it), with Labour increasing their number of representatives to 64, their best result since 1997.
• The Progress Party has maintained and strengthened its position as the second party of parliament.
• The Conservatives have regained nearly half the seats they lost in 2005.
• The Centre Party has retained its support, the Christian Democrats and Socialist Left suffered losses, and the Liberals have once again almost been wiped out with only 2 of their 10 seats left.

Intriguingly, all three of the larger parties in Norway have made gains in Monday’s election at the expense of their smaller partners, perhaps partly a result of the particularly competitive nature of the election and the considerable uncertainty over the result.

The (potential) narrow Red-Green majority of 3 (86 to 83 members) can work both ways. On the one hand, a small majority can empower individual members of the government or small groups who may be dissatisfied with particular policies; on the other hand, a small majority can act as a disciplining force, with a loss of any major vote potentially threatening the government’s survival.

In addition, since both the Progress Party and Conservatives have made gains, mainly at the expense of the other centre to centre-right groups, it means that the prospect of a Progress minority government is still viable if the Red-Green coalition falters. This potentially provides a further incentive for Red-Green representatives to ensure that the coalition works out of fear of being brought down in a confidence vote and an alternative right-wing government installed.

Short of a major crisis of confidence in the government, this is unlikely to happen. Although the centre to centre-right government in 2000 was brought down over a vote on environmental policy, this government was itself in a minority to begin with. The smaller centre to right parties also remain sceptical over supporting any Progress government.

The Red-Green coalition has survived the last 4 years with only 1 more seat than they have now. Therefore, as long as the different parties continue to cooperate and their individual representatives are satisfied, it is very possible for them to govern for another full term. Indeed, it is still potentially a better parliamentary situation for Labour than any of its minority governments of the 1970s and 80s.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Building bridges over murky waters: future inter-party coalition formation in Norway

If you try to walk across a river without a Bridge under you, you will fall in the water. This would seem to be common sense to most of us.

Similarly, if you are a party trying to govern a liberal democratic country without any hope of a majority you are likely to sink (aside from some instances where those crossing at a shallows or using stepping stones are mistaken for being people that can walk on water).

The long-established political routes and bridges in Norway have already been subject to changes and diversions over the last few years. In this election they may even be circumvented in favour of a new political bridge, created by the one party in the parliament (Storting) that has never been in government before. First however, let us take a brief look at what roads have most often been travelled in forming governments over the last 60 years or so.

Well travelled routes, and their recent diversions

The two more established options in Norwegian politics since the early 20th century, have been that of a Labour government and a coalition of between two and four of the centre to centre-right parties, options which have themselves been changing over the last 10 years.

Mainstream Social Democrat parties in the Nordic countries have tended to be the dominant parties of government in the 20th century in much the same way as the UK Conservative party or Fianna Fáil in the Republic of Ireland. The Norwegian Labour party has been in government for (roughly) 44 years out of the last 64. Whether in government or opposition it has been the largest party in the parliament since 1927. Like Social Democratic parties elsewhere in Europe, it has embraced something of a liberalizing trend since the 1980s, but nevertheless has not significantly altered longstanding social democratic institutions. 1

One of the recent difficulties it has faced is a declining number of parliamentary seats, compelling the building of new bridges and adoption of coalition politics for the first time, being in a Red-Green government with the Centre party and Socialist Left (SV) since 2005.

The centre-to-centre right alternative has in the past consisted of the Conservatives (Høyre), Christian Democrats (HrK), Liberals (Venstre - on social issues relatively progressive), and the Centre party (Centrism/Agrarian politics). It has even seen all four groups successfully find common ground on which to govern Norway between 1965-71, with combinations of two to three of these parties governing most of the years when Labour have been in opposition.

This group has had to adapt to a decline in their levels of representation, with the Conservatives reduced from 2nd to 3rd place in terms of parliamentary seats, and some of the parties losing their representation altogether for several years, such as the Liberals between 1985 and 1993. The realignment of the Centre party as more on the left of the political spectrum and thus less likely to participate in such a coalition, has also presented a challenge, arguably helping to collapse the centre-right coalition in 2000, and leaving the remaining three centre-to-centre right parties to form the government between 2001 and 2005.

As for why these two groupings have seen their parliamentary support drop in recent years, this appears mainly down to the creation in 1973 of what is now called the (FRP) Progress Party. Started as an anti-tax protest movement, it has grown to make recent breakthroughs in parliament, becoming the 2nd largest party in 2005. Its more classical liberal and nationalist approach has attracted significant support by challenging the established consensus, along with its outsider status as the only parliamentary party that has not participated before in government (with even the Socialist Left party also founded in 1973 being in government for the last 4 years). The label libertarian has sometimes been used to describe it, perhaps misleadingly, when its liberalizing views on the economy are contrasted with its more socially conservative credentials on issues like immigration, or its policy of favouring new oil drilling off Lofoten and Vesteraalen, but putting any such decision to a public referendum.2 It has been largely ignored in the past as a bridge partner by the other six parties, but its size may make it difficult to ignore in any successful government after this election.3

Bridging the gap, what lies ahead?

Thus in 2009, the waters are somewhat clouded as to which bridge is preferred or to where these bridges will lead. Whereas in 2005 there was arguably a relatively settled choice between the pre-election Red-Green alliance and the continuation of the incumbent centre-right government, the Progress Party’s increased strength as a bloc appears to have blurred the choices at this election, leaving a sizeable number of voters undecided.4 Whilst it is always possible for strange and unpredictable things to happen in politics, arguably there are three most plausible routes for successful bridges this time round:

1) Continuation of the Red-Green governing coalition
2) Formation of a multiparty centre/centre right coalition
3) A Progress Party minority government, receiving support from the Conservatives

1) Continuation of the Red-Green governing coalition

This is the equivalent of continuing to cross a bridge built by several people, each trusting that the other will continue work to keep their section useable. The possibility of this has varied considerably over the last year: the coalition parties were behind in the polls, rocked by various corruption scandals 5 , but recently they have seen polling leads, possibly down to such factors as the government’s perceived strength in handling the economic crisis and Prime Minister Stoltenberg’s personal popularity.6

However, even if Labour does well as currently projected, any drop in support for the other coalition parties could still eliminate their majority (indeed, one fear is that the Socialist Left’s poor result in the 2007 local elections could be repeated in this national election).7 There have been suggestions that Labour could form a minority government or even embark upon a more wide-ranging coalition. The first seems unlikely, with a defeat for the coalition, even if it is as a consequence of losses for the Centre party and Socialist Left, viewed psychologically as an electorate passing judgement upon the coalition as a whole. As for the second, it would require either a new socialist party in parliament, or else persuasion of either the Liberals or the Christian Democrats to join the coalition. Whilst this is not impossible, the Christian Democrats are somewhat sceptical of Socialist Left participation, and would be unlikely to join any coalition that included them, whilst the last election when the Liberals talked about supporting Labour was in 1985, the same instance as when they lost all their parliamentary seats. It is thus a move which would take a lot of persuasion and probably the breaking of the existing Red-Green partnership.

Only if there is no other viable option would a Labour minority government be politically possible.

2) Formation of a multiparty centre/centre right coalition (excluding Progress)

This is the equivalent of a group who used to build bridges together being trusted to build a new one and maintain it. It is possible, however there are factors working against it.

Some may point to Fredrik Reinfeldt’s success in Sweden in 2006, when a pre-electoral alliance of the same type of parties toppled an incumbent Social Democrat coalition. However, the differences in Norwegian politics have prevented that kind of pre-electoral coalition emerging, with the centre-to-centre right divided, facing multiple opponents/potential new partners from both left and right. Even if reduced somewhat in size, its seat numbers mean that Progress party support would almost certainly be required in some form to help such a coalition achieve a majority, as was the case between 2001 and 2005. They are unlikely to repeat such support this time without being full partners at the Cabinet table, whilst the leaders of both Christian Democrats and Liberals have said they will not work in a coalition that includes the Progress party.

3) A Progress Party minority government, receiving support (on key votes) from the Conservatives (probably from outside the Cabinet)

This is the equivalent of building a bridge halfway across a river and then trusting person/persons to take you the rest of the distance by boat to the other side. Although the likelihood has diminished, this still remains an option, depending on how the governing coalition performs.

In spite of some recent poll setbacks, the Progress party is still a force to be reckoned with, particularly if it can hold onto 2nd place in terms of seats. It has also expressed a clear desire to work with other non-socialist parties, but at the same time a willingness to go-it-alone if winning more than seats than them. Whilst the Conservatives have, in one sense, lost their place as the dominant Conservative parliamentary group to the Progress Party, they remain the only party that has expressed a willingness to work with them in forming a government. This also appears to be an option reflected at a more local level, with 3 out of 4 Conservative members recently polled as being in favour of such a move.8 The Conservatives are also seen as potentially a ‘bridge’ between the Progress Party and its more traditional allies of Liberals and Christian Democrats (indeed the Christian Democrats have not ruled out supporting a Progress Party government in key votes, although this is balanced by an unwillingness to work with them in coalition).9


In any election of multiparty coalition politics, numbers are important in determining possible combinations for government. But, especially in this instance, personalities are also important; in the form of party leaderships’ being able to work together, being able to trust that the other person will help to bridge their part of the gap, and being able to find some kind of common ground upon which to build the foundation. It is the realization of each of these leaders complex preferences with regard to partners or groups they refuse to deal with which makes the waters so murky and the eventual government formation so difficult to predict.

It simply remains to be seen as to whether a new bridge will be crossed or whether the well travelled crossings will be the ones preferred by politicians and the Norwegian public alike.

(Photograph is of the current leaders of Norway's Socialist Left, Labour, and Centre parties, source:

Sunday, 30 August 2009

A brief comment after the dust has settled...

Sunday was a clear landslide, and a true 'earthquake' in terms of Japanese politics.

The new parliament is almost a mirror image of the old one with:
LDP/New Komeito holding 140 seats
to the DPJ/SDP/PNP bloc's 318 seats.

For full results: Kyodo News - Results Breakdown

Technically the DPJ, with 308 out of 480 seats, could easily form a government in the House of Representatives on its own, but I doubt they will do that, partly to reassure people through the image of cooperative politics, and partly because they need their allies to hold an absolute majority in the upper House of Councillors.

If they do form such a coalition, it will also mean that they would hold more than 2/3 of the seats in the House of Representatives. In such a situation, it is difficult to see what the LDP could do in the parliament itself. Any recovery would have to be built on either from sub-national government, or by regaining control of the upper house when half of its seats come up for election next year (one of the significant factors undermining the LDP for the last 2 years has been opposition control of the upper house).

In spite of their remaining strengths, it seems unlikely that the LDP will be able to shake off the effects of Sunday's defeat and rebuild public trust that quickly on their own. Their recovery will more likely depend on how successful the DPJ government is over the next year in delivering on its manifesto, and whether what has up until now been a broad coalition defined by their opposition to the LDP can keep working together for the next four years without quarrelling.

Already there are indications of such future difficulties, with the SDP's resolute stance against deployment of the Japanese Self Defence Forces, even in their current missions of refuelling in the Indian Ocean, or patrolling against piracy off the coast of Somalia, while the People's New Party wants a stop to, and possibly even reversal of, the privatisation of the postal service. How the DPJ handles these difficult issues and integrates its allies into any coalition will be a crucial test of their ability to govern.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Surviving Political Earthquakes: The Future of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party

With our eyes drawn to the recent political volcanoes across the Atlantic, the prospect that on Sunday the tectonic plates of politics in Asia-Pacific will shift radically is largely yet to receive much attention in our media. There is a real prospect for the first time in fifty years that in Japan the largely conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will lose power in an election to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a broad-based grouping of liberal and social democratic interests.1

Some would argue that the result on Sunday is far from certain. They may point to those factors which remain in the LDP government’s favour, amongst other things: the large electoral mountain for the DPJ; the likely need to form a coalition government (the LDP’s own coalition with New Komeito being relatively stable); the economy recently coming out of recession; the LDP retaining a strong party organizational capacity, bolstered by its long-established patron-client networks; and restrictive electoral laws, preventing the growth of grassroots movements, such as that which enabled Barack Obama’s victory, by limiting the use of the internet for campaigning. The LDP campaign has also focused on attacking the DPJ’s ability to deliver its elaborate spending promises without raising consumption tax. Many Social Democrat parties in the past have fallen foul of incumbent government charges of economic incompetence, not least Neil Kinnock’s Labour in 1992.

However, the saliency of these factors is debatable. Climbing the mountain is made easier by the LDP’s long tenure of office and a general desire for change, whilst the DPJ have also gained useful experience of working in coalition with left-wing parties in the upper House of Councillors for the past two years.2 Economic recovery is blighted by the LDP’s own record of economic mismanagement and recent spate of scandals which has led to the loss of several cabinet members, including the finance minister in early 2009 whilst the DPJ has sought to nullify charges of economic incompetence through the presentation of its detailed spending plans (for an alternative view see 3). In aiming to counter long-established networks and restrictive campaign laws, the DPJ has designed its manifesto to appeal to a wide constituency, ranging from such measures as providing an allowance to children of 312,000 Yen (about 2000 pounds) per annum, to reducing the lower rate of corporation tax from 18% to 11%, and has even adopted relatively centrist Foreign policy not that dissimilar to the incumbent government, but nevertheless still able to express their desires for a more Asia-centric focus and goals such as global nuclear disarmament.4  

Regardless of the electoral outcome, there seems little doubt that the LDP will have to work hard to recover from the crises that have battered it in recent years. Whether in government or opposition, I would suggest that there are three key foundations which the LDP could build upon in order to recover its strength and ability to govern: Trust grounded in Grassroots Organization; Strength grounded in Unifying Leadership; and Vision grounded in Concrete Policy.

Trust through Grassroots Organization
For the LDP to truly regain public trust, it should not only talk about or implement changes to the law over such issues as political donations and the ‘hereditary transfer’ of parliamentary seats. As a party which has stressed the organic nature of society and the need to promote values such as responsibility, the LDP must seize upon changing the very culture, root and branch, within itself, striving to reflect the more meritocratic principles of the society it has helped to fashion.

One possible way of doing this, and of reconnecting with the people, would be to use the LDP’s sizeable organizational capacity to establish a more open and democratic federalized structure, seeking the involvement of a far greater number of people at a local level. Mass party politics may be largely dead, but the involvement of the masses in politics is alive and growing as we have seen in recent movements from America and beyond. It would perhaps be best for the LDP to revisit its experiment of balloting party members in 1978, using such innovations as electronic or online balloting to overcome difficulties whether time-related or technical. 

A greater commitment to the decentralization of power in the country, before the LDP’s stated goal of 2017, is the twin goal of this reformed and federalized party structure, promoting peoples’ ability to shape policies that impact upon them at a local level, and also giving the grassroots of a federalized LDP the tools to gain added administrative experience at a sub-national level, boosting their capacity for governance in the future. 

Strength grounded in Unifying Leadership
To some extent the present leader, Taro Aso, has not helped the situation with his political gaffes and unpopular image created by such activities as dining out very frequently at expensive restaurants. However, blaming any loss solely on his leadership would make the same mistake that other conservative parties have made in the past, such as the UK Conservatives in 1997 who seemed to focus their blame on John Major at the expense of more reflection on the multiplicity of factors involved in their defeat. The LDP have to recognize that his weakness is reflective of a fundamental and contradictive dichotomy within the party as a whole: the post-Koizumi desire for a leader with widespread name recognition and popularity; versus the considerable power of long-established factional bases, which has led to the quick removal of leaders when they are seen to no longer be popular, thus limiting their ability to lead and creating an image of inconsistency at odds with LDP’s own principles of stability. 

To some extent, the reorganization of the LDP structure, with a leader enjoying the elected mandate of the grassroots would help to alleviate this problem. It must also be accompanied however with greater institutional resources for the leadership, particularly in terms of manpower and expertise to: manage and interact with the components of a complex party machine; deal with the demands of the mediatised age of 24 hour news; and develop well-thought out policies. At the same time, the particularly entrenched and smoke-filled back room world of intra-party politics serves to sometimes choke the respectable efforts of LDP leaders. Just as with the grassroots, a more formally organised and wider participation of different groups within the party, both in its internal governing structure and that of the country, would help to achieve a greater sense of unity and transparency, providing those within the party with greater avenues of opportunity for advancement of interests through institutional channels.5 

Vision grounded in Concrete Policy
It has been suggested by some that the LDP has run out of ideas, or is merely grasping at straws. Rather, I would suggest that the LDP has many ideas, some of them with potential, such as ring-fencing increased consumption tax to pay social security costs, but that it needs to refocus its priorities and concentrate on policies that make its vision of responsibility and economic growth a reality in the present. Much of the manifesto appears to concentrate on the long-term issues.6

This is perhaps reflective of the LDP’s own longevity in political office and is not in itself wrong. Rather, the LDP should also focus more on providing concrete details of how it would address the country’s immediate concerns, such as bringing forward its planned additional vocational training schemes from starting in 2013 to the present. It may also reinforce its credibility by tying more specific promises to how they will be paid for, perhaps emulating the UK Liberal Democrats past plan to put 1p on income tax to pay for increased investment in education, or the Norwegian Government’s pension fund, fed by oil taxation and grown through strategic investment.7

It may well be that even a period of DPJ government would be short-lived. It is more often than not governments who lose elections. Nevertheless, as we have witnessed relatively recently in Britain, an opposition can easily lose in the face of an unpopular government, if it does not provide the people with a credible alternative. Whoever leads the LDP after Taro Aso, there will almost certainly have to be changes to reverse their decline in government both on a national and sub-national level which in 2007 saw the loss of their majority in the upper house for the first time ever and recently also saw a historic victory for the DPJ in elections in Tokyo.8

It is probable that longstanding interests within the LDP will be resistant to any far reaching change, unless the defeat was to be especially heavy on Sunday. The death knell of political entities is sounded too often by the media, but it is always worth remembering the Canadian Conservative party which went into the 1993 election a longstanding party of government, divided, in a time of economic difficulty, with what has been regarded as a weak leadership, and was reduced from 169 to merely 2 seats.9 It is also worthwhile to remember that they returned to government (albeit a minority one) 13 years later. It may well be that opposition can bring new life to the Japanese Liberal Democrats, and a new political future to Japan and the world.


Welcome to "Thinking Outside the Ballot Box".