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Japan's ruling coalition outshines other developed democracies

Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito steer nation clear of divisive populism

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the LDP: Komeito and the LDP are riding a wave of political success that has kept them in power for all but three of the past 20 years.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito on Saturday marked the 20th anniversary since they formed a coalition government. In the past two decades the camp spent only three years out of power, thanks to a strong support base.

This ability to hold on to power offers a sharp contrast to the parties of other developed democracies, where political foundations are being rattled. Stability has enabled Team LDP-Komeito to shrug off a divided public and respond to a financial crisis, to create national security legislation and to twice raise the consumption tax.

But there are concerns that the prime minister's office has become too powerful.

The LDP has held power for decades with few interruptions. Komeito is a much smaller force backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest Buddhist organization.

"The LDP and Komeito have helped each other to come to this point," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a meeting of government and ruling coalition executives on Tuesday. "They embody 'beautiful harmony."

"Beautiful harmony" is the official translation of Reiwa, the name of the era that began on May 1 with Emperor Naruhito's accession to the throne.

Takenori Kanzaki, the chief of Komeito when the party first teamed up with the LDP in 1999, says Japan stands out in a world in which many countries are politically unstable. He considers stability to be the coalition's biggest achievement.

The LDP had approached Komeito the previous year, when Japan was reeling from a financial crisis, including the collapse of Yamaichi Securities and Hokkaido Takushoku Bank. The LDP, which had lost a majority in the Upper House, asked for Komeito's support on a financial stabilization bill. The legislation was passed into law, and the parties began their partnership.

Nikkei looked at which parties in the Group of 7 nations have held power for the longest period of time over the past 20 years. The LDP-Komeito coalition reigned for 84% of the period, an exceptionally high percentage among the seven countries. In Britain, which has a parliamentary democracy like Japan's, the Labor Party held power for 53% of the time. Germany's Christian Democratic Union was in power for 69% of the period. In Italy, which has had six changes of government since 1999, the best any party could manage was 25%.

Japan is an outlier in another way as well -- populism has not gained sway here.

Elsewhere, changes of government or the realignment of coalition governments have led to frequent policy changes and confusion.

Britain's Conservative Party failed to win a majority in the House of Commons in 2010, then formed the U.K.'s first coalition government in the postwar era. In the ensuing years, anti-immigrant and anti-European Union right-wing parties have gained stature. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron, hoping to win back voters who had defected to the nationalist camp, promised that if the Conservative Party won the next general election, he would hold a referendum on whether the country should leave the EU.

His promise backfired, and the resulting political chaos deepens to this day. Many Conservatives have deserted the party since July, when Boris Johnson became prime minister, causing the ruling party to lose its majority in the House of Commons.

So why is Japan so politically stable? Nikkei compared the percentage of Lower House seats the LDP and Komeito won in the seven general elections before and after 1999. The average since 2000 is 65%, 12 points higher than the 53% in the pre-coalition elections.

One reason is that the single-seat districts introduced in 1996 work in favor of well-organized parties. But it is also true that the combination of the LDP, whose main voters are conservative, and "centrist" Komeito has helped to expand the parties' mutual base.

Komeito supported 59% of the LDP candidates in single-seat districts in the 2000 general election. The ratio rose to 96% in the 2017 poll. Komeito's support organization is said to be able to secure around 20,000 votes in one district. The deeper the two parties' cooperation, the more seats the coalition wins and the more stable the government becomes.

Prime ministers stayed in office for an average of 660 days in the 20 years before the LDP-Komeito coalition. The average now sits at 792 days.

A stable government can implement policies that divide public opinion. The coalition dispatched Self-Defense Force units to Iraq -- a highly controversial move at the time. It has gradually advanced legislation allowing the Self-Defense Forces to take on more active roles, something the U.S. has been pushing Japan to do for decades.

And it has twice survived consumption tax hikes, previously a death knell for Japanese governments.

A strong government leads to a concentration of power in the prime minister. The LDP used to have active in-house policy debate among factions. Komeito, in the initial years of the coalition, claimed to be a kind of supervisor, but now there is little debate in the coalition.

As the opposition's presence in the Diet wanes and the likelihood of a handover of power narrows, public interest in Diet debate has evaporated.

"What would happen when serious discussions on amending the constitution arises?" former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka wondered more than 30 years ago. "I bet Komeito will team up with the LDP."

Amending Japan's pacifist constitution is Abe's passion project. Komeito remains cautious on this issue but never mentions the possibility of leaving the coalition. Stability and stagnation are the two sides of the coin. It remains to be seen whether the subject of amending the constitution spurs vigorous debate.

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