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WILL JAPAN ONE DAY HAVE 2 PARTIES?

A faint glimmer of hope has appeared on Japan's political horizon that the nation may be headed for a two-party system of government.

After decades of rough-and-tumble politics that kept an army of tea-leaf readers in work, the Japanese may have only two main candidates to choose from in their next general election.That is the most optimistic view.

For the pessimist, the end of the century is a more likely time to expect two-party rule similar to Britain's Conservative and Labor parties or the Republicans and Democrats of the United States.

What is certain is that if it comes, political scientists will look back to this week as the moment when Japan took the first firm, if hesitant, steps down this new political track.

Japan's eight opposition parties were first out of the starting blocks when they announced Tuesday they had agreed on "basic principles" that could merge them into a new party.

Within hours, a top official of the Liberal Democratic Party, senior partner in Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's coalition government with his Socialists, hinted that they too could see a merged future.

But it is the opposition, which includes three former prime ministers, making the running for the moment.

"It is clear that the problems facing the nation, both at home and abroad, cannot be solved with the political systems and common sense of past tradition," the opposition grouping said in a statement.

They have about 200 of 511 seats in the key lower house.

The eight, already agreed on acting as a parliamentary group when the Diet, Japan's parliament, resumes later this month, hope to set a timetable for a merger "as soon as possible."

No one expects the going to be either quick or easy.

With the ambitions of eight parties and the egos of three former prime ministers to satisfy, the early days are lined with pitfalls that could send the whole idea crashing before it has hardly started.

The history of Japanese politics, back even to the earliest times, is littered with divorces and remarriages of parties.

The almost inexorable impetus for the two-party system has to do with election law changes passed earlier this year.

Under the changes, 300 of the Diet seats will be decided under a first-past-the-post system instead of the multiseat constituencies of the past where a candidate could be elected with as little as 10 percent of the vote.

This and other changes, like the introduction of public subsidies for parties based on their number of seats in parliament, gives the advantage to a large party.

The argument is that this will lead to issues-based elections rather than votes being cast for local favors.

The ruling coalition, although involving a smaller number of parties, has as many hurdles to cross.

It is an unholy alliance of old-time Socialists and pro-business conservatives.

LDP Secretary-General Yoshiro Mori could only vaguely point to the future when he said Tuesday: "When the atmosphere of tolerating the system of two large moderate parties prevails . . . we will be able to enter an age when we act together."