The shadow of Trump looms large over 2017’s first session of the Diet, a 150-day ordinary session which kicked off on January 20th just hours before the new president was inaugurated in Washington. The Abe administration’s struggle to come to grips with the unpredictability and instability of Trump and his policies will dominate domestic headlines in the coming months, but in the background, there’s a homegrown conflict slowly playing out that could also have profound implications for Japan’s political landscape.
That struggle is a tug-of-war between the two parties in one of the world’s most stable government coalitions: the Liberal Democratic Party and its smaller partner, Komeito. Though Komeito has been a part of the Japanese political landscape since 1954, its current incarnation dates back to 1998, since when it has consistently and reliably supported the LDP in government. When the DPJ took the reins of power in 2009 Komeito retired to opposition with the LDP, only to return to the coalition when Shinzo Abe won the 2012 election.
The LDP-Komeito coalition is an unusual one, and not only for its stability and longevity. Unlike many coalition deals, this partnership does not end when election campaigns start; the LDP and Komeito carefully avoid competing with one another where possible, with the LDP instead allowing Komeito candidates to run unopposed, with LDP support, in certain single-member districts, while Komeito encourages its voters everywhere else to support LDP candidates. The coalition has also managed to avoid the fate that befalls most alliances between large and small parties, wherein the smaller party’s identity is subsumed and they find themselves being blamed disproportionately for the larger party’s less popular policies (just ask the British Liberal Democrats, or the Irish Progressive Democrats, how that works out).
The success of the coalition may, counter-intuitively, be down to the fact that the LDP and Komeito are something of an odd couple. The LDP, though a fairly broad church, is largely speaking a party with a neoliberal economic stance and a long-standing desire to normalise Japan’s military and expand its role in international affairs. Komeito, by contrast, bases its policies in the Buddhist principles of the Soka Gakkai religious organisation from which it arose; its economic policies tend towards social democracy, while its views on remilitarisation and international affairs are strongly pacifist. These differences have allowed Komeito to retain a clear identity even after almost 20 years of partnership with the LDP, and careful negotiations between the two parties have allowed Komeito to present itself as a strong moderate influence on LDP policymaking, with a consistent track record of policy victories to show its voters.
Under Prime Minister Abe, however, that relationship has begun to look strained. Part of the problem is that Abe’s legislative agenda contains many aspects which Komeito struggles to reconcile itself with— from the reinterpretation of Article 9 and the controversial State Secrecy act, through to domestic issues such as consumption tax rises and the hastily passed Casino Bill. This year’s Diet session presents a fresh challenge to the coalition in the form of the Conspiracy Bill, a wide-ranging piece of legislation which advocates claim is essential to fighting terrorism in the run-up to the Olympics, while critics warn of a chilling effect on democratic rights and unnecessarily wide-ranging police powers.
Komeito went out of its way to express concerns over the bill and insist that it needed to see detailed drafts before making a decision, before agreeing this week that it would support the bill’s passage. It’s hard to tell how much of this was real unease and how much was carefully choreographed political kabuki, but there’s no doubt that the Conspiracy Bill is a sore point for Komeito voters. Soka Gakkai, the religious organisation to which most Komeito voters belong, was forced to disband in the 1940s when its founders and leadership were imprisoned under the oppressive Peace Preservation Law, a prewar piece of legislation often referred to by critics of the modern Conspiracy Bill; even if Komeito has now agreed to support the bill, it will remain unpopular with the party’s voters.
On the other side of the relationship, there’s no doubt that some parts of the Abe administration—including perhaps the Prime Minister himself—have begun to chafe at the restrictions imposed by their partnership with Komeito. Notably, Abe has started to reach across the aisle to Nippon Ishin no Kai, an Osaka-centric regionalist party that seems more closely aligned with the LDP’s policy agenda than Komeito on certain conservative issues. The LDP worked with Nippon Ishin on the Casino Bill last year, and is now in discussions to find common ground with the party on constitutional reform—a controversial area where the LDP’s priorities radically differ from those of Komeito.
These hints of coalition infidelity may have far-reaching consequences. Komeito’s utility to the LDP goes far beyond the votes it provides in the Diet; the party is unique in the Japanese political sphere in its ability to deliver votes in major elections reliably and consistently. Though its connection to Soka Gakkai has led to criticism in the past on the grounds of Japan’s strict separation of church and state, it also means that Komeito’s vote share holds up in almost all electoral conditions. The agreement with the LDP, which grants Komeito certain single-member districts in return for supporting the LDP elsewhere, is of enormous mutual benefit; Komeito would likely struggle to win any districts without LDP support, but in return it transfers between six and seven million votes to the LDP at each House of Representatives election. Without the LDP’s support, Komeito would likely find itself restricted to proportionally elected seats, with its representation shrinking to something similar to that of the Japan Communist Party. But without Komeito’s support, the LDP would be far more electorally vulnerable in many districts around the country.
Of course, a similar deal could be struck with Nippon Ishin no Kai; but here, the LDP should tread carefully. The current incarnation of Nippon Ishin no Kai is a new and highly unstable party, a by-product of over half a dozen mergers and splits in the highly volatile fringes of Japan’s opposition over the past seven or eight years. Its support is highly centralized in the Kansai region around Osaka, and unlike Komeito, whose unique policy platform and religious identity set it apart from the LDP, a coalition with Ishin no Kai would rapidly destroy much of the smaller party’s identity, its appeal to voters, and its utility as a coalition partner.
The balancing act required to keep the LDP/Komeito coalition stable is a delicate one. LDP politicians may grumble over being held back from their policy ambitions by the smaller party, but Nippon Ishin and other fringe conservative groups in the Diet are no substitute for the votes Komeito can provide. Pushing Komeito too hard, meanwhile, risks opening a fracture between the political party and Soka Gakkai. It is oversimplistic to think of these two entities as one, and if Komeito supports policies too distantly removed from Soka Gakkai’s beliefs, they may find themselves no longer able to reliably deliver votes to the LDP come election time. Either of these paths—coalition infidelity, or simply pushing Komeito to adopt positions abhorrent to Soka Gakkai members—risks slaying a golden egg-laying goose upon which the LDP has heavily relied for electoral stability since the late 1990s.
With the LDP’s vote totals still languishing even lower than they were when the party lost power in 2009, the loss of Komeito votes would leave the party deeply vulnerable to a challenge from an even moderately competent opposition force in future elections.
Rob Fahey is a PhD researcher at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science. Follow him on Twitter at @