Japan's LDP Loses Its Way

For Japan's liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the months since its unprecedented electoral defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have been marked by a stubborn refusal to learn from defeat. After the August election, it selected its new leader, 65-year-old Sadakazu Tanigaki, over younger reformist candidates. He quickly put an end to any talk of dissolving the LDP's factions or fixing any of the ossified party's other bad habits. Instead of adapting to life in opposition, the party hammered Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and DPJ secretary-general Ichiro Ozawa on charges of political corruption, which struck most voters as hypocritical, given the LDP's own history of scandal. The LDP's support in opinion polls remained in the low teens, and party leaders are bailing out. Twenty Diet members have left the LDP since it went into opposition. It is the 20th, Yoichi Masuzoe, who resigned last week to start what's known for the moment as the Masuzoe New Party, promising to improve the provision of social services, that may signal the death knell of the LDP.

Masuzoe, an academic turned TV commentator, was minister of health, labor, and welfare under prime ministers Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso. He has been a vocal critic of Tanigaki. He also happens to be the most popular politician in Japan. Numerous polls show he is far and away the favored choice to be the next prime minister. Last year he was the only senior member of the LDP with whom LDP candidates wanted to be photographed. His departure strips the LDP of its most notable figure, leaving behind a party that is increasingly irrelevant to discussions of Japan's future.

There are no rebels left inside the former ruling party. For decades various LDP leaders have pushed change, seeking to shift the party away from the redistribution of wealth to its key supporters—businesses large and small, farmers, postal workers, and other narrow interest groups—in order to appeal to the growing ranks of independent voters concentrated in Japan's major urban centers. In their day, Ozawa, who later helped found the DPJ, and former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi campaigned on platforms of "destroying" the LDP and rebranding it as a modern, reformist party. They each enjoyed some successes in office, only to see those gains reversed once they left. Masuzoe may have been the LDP's last, best chance at reinventing itself. If Masuzoe gave up on battling the old guard, what chance do less prominent reformers have?

It seems odd that the LDP should be retreating from reform, despite its historic defeats in the last two national elections. During a half century in power, the LDP acquired a reputation for survival against all odds, in part because of its willingness to make unexpected compromises such as the 1994 coalition with Japan's Socialist Party that returned the LDP to power. But longevity has cursed the party. Its ranks are filled with politicians who have stood for little beyond the distribution of government largesse to ensure their own reelections. It was this old guard that survived the 2009 election, while the young ideologues who were elected on Koizumi's reformist coattails went down in defeat across Japan. Just as the LDP entered opposition and most needed serious introspection, it lost many of its young reformers.

In the near term, the LDP's failure to reform is bad for Japan. The long era of LDP rule ended in decades of economic stagnation, showing how much Japan needs a credible opposition party to which voters can turn should the government fail to deliver. The LDP is now less well positioned to play that role than either Masuzoe's new party or the rival Your Party, led by former LDP reformist Yoshimi Watanabe. Both Masuzoe and Watanabe are policy wonks, capable of challenging the DPJ on policy grounds and committed to delivering more effective leadership by the prime minister and the cabinet.

Neither of these new parties is in a position to take power. But if they perform well in this summer's parliamentary elections, depriving the DPJ of control of the upper house, they could gain enough leverage to force the DPJ to deliver on reform. The LDP, unreconstructed and no longer even interested in reform, is more likely just to fade away.