Stagnation as Erosion: Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s Monopoly by Ginger Li @ Yale University
Since 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan has enjoyed near complete control of the Japanese government. It has only failed to hold a majority for four of the past sixty-three years. This long-standing supremacy by one political party raises questions of how democratic the Japanese system really is, and if sustained single party-domination is a sign of democracy eroding.
Most definitions of democracy share a few common key elements, such as free and fair elections, protected civil liberties, and responsive institutions. This should result in a government that is trusted by its citizens to effectively represent their interests and considered legitimate. What these definitions leave out is the need for a functioning democratic system to yield some degree of leadership alternation. Alternation demonstrates that the electoral system is responsive to both changes in the will of the people and the shifting societal, economic and political context. Lack of alternation, as Japan is experiencing, points to a lack of responsiveness. This may in turn be linked to an outsize and potentially dangerous amount of political power concentrated in one party.
The LDP has come to enjoy key advantages over potential competing political parties, while simultaneously gaining the ability, consciously or not, to erode democratic values and practices. Some signs of an emerging democratic erosion caused by this lack of alternation are recent corruption scandals, a weakening of freedom of the press, and declining political participation.
Scandal has plagued Abe’s administration since his first term as prime minister in September 2006, and many have asserted that corruption allegations led to his resignation of his post one year later. Later reelected and now in his fourth term as prime minister, after a snap election that many believe Abe called so he could be confirmed before the impact of recent cronyism scandals, Abe’s approval rating continues to plummet as accusations of his corruption continues to dominate news coverage.
The prevalence of corruption is an indication of a failure of checks and balances in a democratic system, which may be enabled by the LDP’s domination over the system, which Abe is the leader of.  Lack of legitimate opposition means LDP representatives are selected over and over, which was particularly evident in the last election for prime minister when the sole competitive candidate represented a party formed months prior. These corruption allegations, concentrated at the highest echelons of the Japanese government, could have a dangerous effect on citizens’ trust in government and perceptions of government legitimacy, which points to an erosion of democracy.
Freedom of the press
Another notable manifestation of democracy eroding is the drop of ratings of Japan’s freedom of the press, as measured by organizations like Freedom House. With legislation such as the 2014 Specially Designed Secrets Act, the Japanese government reserves the power to punish journalists for speaking out against the government or bringing to light potentially damaging information. This results in self-censoring tendencies by journalists and the media, derived potentially from a fear of being punished under this new legislation or out of a sense of loyalty to protect the government. 
The LDP’s power again could be seen as to blame for this weakened civil liberty. When a single party commands control for as long as it has, it gains the political clout to legislate in such a way that reinforces its own power. This is an identifiable form of democratic erosion in the same vein as Nancy Bermeo’s conception of executive aggrandizement: an institutional change that is legally decreed and thus which seems to be the result of the popular will, when in fact a single political entity is entrenching itself in a position of power.
Data shows a decline in political participation in Japan, not only in voter turnout but in other metrics such as contacting elected officials and joining political demonstrations. This decline points to a general apathy about politics among Japanese citizens. This lack of civic engagement may suggest a political culture of potentially growing distrust and disengagement caused by negative perceptions towards government responsiveness.
The continued strength of the LDP may lead voters to withdraw from the democratic process. History suggests that the possibility of alternation from an LDP majority is slim, and meanwhile other parties may not have the political space to blossom and develop as a formidable opposition. When not given strong alternatives, for voters the benefits of political participation may not override its costs. Once citizens stop caring about the government and participating, electoral effectiveness declines and democratic legitimacy diminishes. As long as the LDP monopolizes elected seats, democracy may continuously erode.
Appeal of the LDP
One may argue that keeping the LDP in power is in fact a conscious and renewed choice by Japanese voters, who continue to agree with and vote for the party’s platform. The party has its merits regarding issues such as its militaristic stance towards North Korea and its historic success in guiding economic growth. The LDP has come up with solutions for these salient issues: a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate pacifism in Japan’s constitution, and Abe’s “Abenomics” plan. Perhaps the party’s size and lack of legitimate opposition is a strength in enabling a diversity of opinions within its ranks and flexibility to adapt its platform to the people’s will.
Despite this more positive outlook on the lack of alternation, there may still be damage being done to Japan’s democracy that points to erosion. The disconnect forming between Japan’s government and its governed could be seen at best as apathy and at worst as distrust. This severing relationship threatens the underlying principle of democracy as the people’s government. While it may not be solely to blame, the side effects of the LDP’s entrenchment do not seem to be bolstering the people’s faith in their government.
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