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The LDP has had near-continuous power in Japan since 1955. To Westerners accustomed to one party leading a nation for a decade or two before another one has its turn, this sounds like it would be either a dream come true or a nightmare, depending on whether you like the LDP's politics. But the LDP has many factions, differing in their policies and/or traditional supporters, and specific LDP Prime Ministers have come from various factions, primarily Seiwa, Heisei and Kōchikai. According to Wikipedia, Seiwa (which includes incumbent PM Abe) favours reducing redistributive taxes and labour rights, Heisei is Keynesian, and Kōchikai has a history of facilitating small business loans.

As I see it, there are three possible readings of this, insofar as one can apply Western thinking to this situation:

  1. The LDP is analogous, in terms of a consistent internal ideology, to any mainstream Western political party; it's just really good at winning elections, for better or worse.
  2. The LDP is more of an umbrella term which, while not including all parties, includes a number of factions that are functionally parties in their own right, so that a transition in power from one faction to another is as transformative from a policy perspective as when power changes hands in other nations.
  3. The LDP isn't adequately described by either of the above proposals. On the one hand, the policies of non-LDP parties are a non-starter, because LDP factions are united in being unsympathetic to them. On the other hand, factions differ enough that, within the Overton window the LDP's success circumscribes, there is room for policy variation as power drifts among the factions.

What's the right way to construe the LDP's structure?

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  • 1
    This question has a false premise. There is enormous variation in the internal variability between Western countries, and in particular between those with first-the-the-post systems (which favour few but internally diverse parties) and those with proportional systems (which favour many parties, but more internally homogenous). – Peter Taylor Dec 21 '19 at 13:39
  • @PeterTaylor Do you recommend I change the question to compare to something more specific, e.g. the UK, or that I hope someone will post an answer that discusses which of 1-3 is appropriate depending on the nation chosen? – J.G. Dec 21 '19 at 13:41
  • Parties is one way of mobilizing voters. In Japan as well as in the US and UK. – Stefan Skoglund May 18 at 22:12
  • Italy's Christdemocrat party (until the scandals of the 90s) had such an position ... though that was basically because external forces supported them and the communist party was excluded. – Stefan Skoglund May 18 at 22:14
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I am not familiar with Japanese politics. I am familiar with US politics. I am especially familiar with the politics of my local city.

The Democratic party has controlled my city since forever. There are no Republican candidates on my ballot.

This does not mean my city is not small d democratic. The Democratic primaries are hotly contested.

In the US as a whole, there are formal party like factional organizations within both the Democratic and Republican parties. So it would not surprise me too much if the LDJ works in the same way.

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Japan had a "dominant party system" or did until 1993 or so. Since 1993, the LDP has lost power twice and only currently holds a supermajority by virtual of a coalition with another political party, since it can't manage that in its own right.

Sometimes a dominant party system is considered to have ended when lower political offices are lost by the dominant party, or free and fair elections begin to become very close even though it doesn't lose a full governing majority, but it ends no later when when it loses its parliamentary majority for the first time. But the mere fact that a party has a significant winning streak when there is some alternation of parties and there is some viable possibility that a party could lose an election, is not a dominant party system, it is just as multi-party or two party system with one party that is on average, stronger than the other. It is rare even in a two party or multiple party system that the parties are perfectly equally matched for any sustained period of time, even though parity is a natural "attractor" of the electoral system that tends to tug political parties in its direction.

Other countries have had such parties, which dominate politically even though other parties are not banned.

In Mexico, for two generations or so, it was the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party).

In the American South, during Reconstruction, this was the Republican Party, and from the end of Reconstruction until the Civil Rights movement, it was the Democratic Party. Arguably, the U.S. had a dominant party system during the Great Depression (during which the Democrats has immense supermajorities for many successive elections).

Most newly independent countries have a period of time when the party that secured independence, like the Congress Party in India, is a dominant party. Sometimes the dominant party becomes one leading party of many or undergoes a true schism into multiple parties, sometimes a dominant party system evolves into a true one party system.

Factions within a dominant party are really not closely analogous to different Western style political parties. Prior to 1993, it was in category 3 of the OP. Now, it may be in category 1 of the OP.

On the inside, the LDP doesn't look much different than a big tent western party like the U.K. Labour Party or the Democratic Party in the U.S. Japan has a narrower range of political opinion, but the internal process is actually less like an umbrella for multiple parties than the U.S. Democratic Party (since the U.S. party doesn't control membership or who it runs for office, and has no enforceable platform). The LDP isn't like an umbrella, even though, like all large organizations, it has internal factions.

Factions within a dominant party are more like factions within a one party state that has exceptionally liberal and meets high democratic standards relative to other one party states.

Dominant parties are particularly vulnerable in much the same way as one party systems, to corruption, because they face no short term electoral threats even if they behave badly (almost by definition).

In a multi-party system, different factions compete for support from members of the general public and debates over their disputes are public and there are few if any boundaries to the scope of acceptable political positions.

In a dominant or one party system, different factions compete for the support of the party leadership and party members (whose admission to the party is often regulated), key debates are often private and internal, and the party's organizational principles and history limit the scope of acceptable political positions.

Unlike a one party state, a dominant party usually eventually loses its dominant party status (as the LDP did not later than 1993 even though it eventually won re-election), although it often takes decades, and the mere possibility that this could happen creates some incentive for the dominant party to be responsive to the people.

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  • (1) What would be an example of how inter-faction disagreements in the LDP end up less public, or subject to more boundaries, than they would be in a multi-party system? (2) Why would the end of the LDP's dominance move from 3 to 1? If anything, I would have thought it would then go the other way. – J.G. May 18 at 19:27
  • @J.G. Suppose that Japan is debating military action against North Korea when the LDP holds the Prime Ministership, and one faction wants to do a military embargo while the other one wants to bomb the capital city to kill its political leadership. That debate would happen behind closed doors and would be governed by the LDP party platform on commitments to only acting in self-defense (at least on the surface of those debates). If the factions were different parties, the debates would happen in open session of parliament and in the news, and militarizing the nation could be openly considered. – ohwilleke May 18 at 19:32
  • Given the uniquely pacifistic nature of Japanese defence, that can't be a realistic example. Could you give one that actually happens? – J.G. May 18 at 19:34
  • @J.G. A dominant party system is neither just a party that wins, nor is it an umbrella. It is a single party, that can't easily lose in an election (hence 3 not 1 or 2). Now it is 1 because it usually wins, but not always. – ohwilleke May 18 at 19:34
  • I think you might have focused too much on the numbered options' attempts to quantify electoral success frequency rather than contrasting like-one-Western-party, like-multiple-distinct-Western-partirs & something-intermediate. – J.G. May 18 at 19:37

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