SDP, now merely an also-ran, has no one to blame but itself

By Sayuri Daimon, The Japan Times, 11 December 2002

This year was certainly not a good one for the Social Democratic Party of Japan—once the largest opposition force but now the smallest in the Diet.

In addition to popular lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto's resignation from both the party and the Diet in March over alleged misuse of her secretaries' government-paid salaries, politicians Masakazu Yamamoto, Yoko Tajima and Kinuko Ofuchi fled after becoming disgruntled with the way the SDP was managed.

The main gripe for Tajima was the party's long accommodating stance toward North Korea, which in September finally admitted it kidnapped several Japanese in past decades, confirming long-held suspicions in Japan that were routinely dismissed by the SDP.

Then recently there was a plan hatched by now-departing Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama to form an opposition bloc uniting the DPJ, the Liberal Party and the SDP—an idea that was never formally conveyed to SDP leader Takako Doi.

We haven't received a formal overture from the leaders of the two parties, SDP Secretary General Mizuho Fukushima said. It is a mere strategy for Mr. Hatoyama, who wanted to survive as the DPJ leader, and for Liberal Party leader (Ichiro) Ozawa, who sought to create a bigger power base for his leadership in the Diet.

It now appears the grand alliance will never get off the ground. Hatoyama failed to sell his party on the idea and is stepping down as a result. Even if the next DPJ leader tries to resurrect the plan, the SDP would probably not join, according to Fukushima.

To form a joint parliamentary group, we need to share a policy goal, and we don't see it now with the two parties, she said. Joining hands without that goal would be suicidal for a party.

And even before the SDP can entertain the notion of joining an opposition coalition, it must shore up its support base and boost its chances of survival.

The party, which in the early 1990s had nearly 140 Lower House members and over 70 in the Upper House, now has a mere 18 in the Lower House and five in the Upper House. Total membership, which peaked at 150,000 in November 1992, is now just 32,000, according to the SDP.

Critics list a number of reasons for the party's decline, ranging from a weakening labor movement following the end of the Cold War to its loss of fortunes with the 1996 introduction of a new electoral system with single-seat constituencies.

But longtime party members also admit the SDP has been out of touch with the needs of a rapidly changing society.

Shigeru Ito, a retired SDP Lower House member and transport minister under the 1993 coalition government of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, said years of strong labor union support led the party to overestimate its influence, even though its membership in real terms was small.

The SDP, which before the 1990s was known as the Japan Socialist Party, never tried to build a popular support base and instead relied on the backing of organized labor, such as the General Council of Trade Unions (Sohyo), Ito said. The party held the illusion that it had its own support base, but in reality, that belonged to Sohyo.

After Sohyo joined other labor organizations to establish the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) in 1987, Rengo provided the support for the party.

But the power of the nation's labor unions has waned over the past two decades.

In the old days, we could count on unions to gather nearly twice as many votes as their membership, Ito said. But recently, only one-third of their members cast votes in an election.

A major setback came in 1996, when nearly half of the SDP lawmakers bolted to join in the creation of the predecessor to the DPJ. That splinter group took Rengo's support with it.

The SDP had a chance to run the country when the party formed a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake in June 1994.

As it turned out, however, Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's perceived ineptitude in running the government and crisis-management eventually led people to doubt that the SDP had what it takes to lead the country.

Murayama drew heavy criticism in particular for his late responses to two historic crises that shook the nation—the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995 and Aum Shinrikyo's sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system two months later.

In subsequent elections, the party's Diet strength has steadily declined. Then this year, on top of the Tsujimoto affair, came the North Korea shock.

Last month, SDP headquarters received a bullet in the mail, apparently a protest to its long-held friendly ties with the (North) Korean Workers' Party.

The SDP was widely criticized for maintaining a stand, as articulated in its July 1997 party bulletin, that Pyongyang's abductions of Japanese was a fiction devised by South Korean intelligence. This position was not purged from the party's official home page until early October.

Though SDP leader Doi apologized for having failed to sufficiently pursue the abduction issue, we received a barrage of phone calls upbraiding the party's stance, an official at SDP headquarters lamented.

If the SDP hopes to return as a viable force, it needs realistic policies that can appeal to a wide range of people.

I think we have failed in our marketing, said an SDP official who declined to be named. For example, our slogan seeking to appeal to women and citizens now sounds old-fashioned.

Today, many women already hold important positions in society, and the time when any female candidate backed by the party could win in an election is over, the official said, referring to the Madonna boom during the bubble economy years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when several female SDP candidates were elected to the Diet.

Ito noted that when the SDP pitched its appeal to citizens, it apparently was only targeting left-leaning activist groups. The time when left-leaning slogans were a recipe for success is over, he said, adding the party must now present policy positions that reflect a determination to be a viable governing force.

The party needs to have a clear policy goal that can be distinguished from (and be more appealing than) those of other parties. At the same time, the process of achieving that policy goal must be very concrete and realistic, he said, adding that the SDP lacks these elements, unlike social democratic forces in Europe.