The nation went to the polls on July 18 in the 40th general election. Voters called for a new political framework and for an end to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s 38-year majority rule. In the election outcome the LDP fell far short of obtaining a simple majority in the powerful 511-seat Lower House, sustaining the biggest defeat in its history. The Socialist Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) also suffered the worst setback in its history. Thus the "System of 1955," with the LDP and the SDPJ (formerly the Japan Socialist Party) as its two pillars, collapsed. In October 1955 the left and the right factions of the JSP merged to form a majority socialist party. In November of the same year, feeling a sense of crisis, the leading conservative parties, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, joined together to counteract the newly-born JSP. The reigning structure of the two major rival parties thus inaugurated is dubbed the System of 1955. Meanwhile, in this election it was the new conservative parties, such as Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party) and the Japan New Party, which had strong showings. The collapse of the System of 1955 constitutes a factor behind calls for a review of labor unions' relationships with political parties.
In Japan, two opposition parties, the SDPJ and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), cannot form an election system without the aid of labor unions. The two parties organized had set relationships with the now-defunct Sohyo (General Council of Trade Unions of Japan)and the old Domei (Japanese Confederation of Labor), respectively. Thus, the SDPJ, for instance, could garner 4.1 million votes with the help of its 50,000 members. It held its position as the No.1 opposition party even though membership was far smaller in number than in parties in Western nations. This is because labor unions affiliated with the former Sohyo sustained the SDPJ with both people and money. In the election, Sohyo members were mobilized with lunch to work for the SDPJ as its temporary members. The Inauguration of Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) led to the disbandment of Sohyo and Domei. Traditional support relations, however, cannot be overhauled in a single day. Furthermore, within Rengo the old Sohyo group supports the SDPJ while the former Domei group backs the DSP.
In the July 18 election, under the leadership of Chairman Yamagishi, Rengo declared its support for creation of a non-LDP, non-JCP coalition, including new conservative parties, such as Shinseito. Along with these strategies, the way labor unions tackled the election had two distinctive features which were formerly unobservable. One was broad-based cooperation in the election transcending old block relations. The other was selective recomendation of SDPJ candidates made by leading Rengo-affiliated industrial unions. Labor unions not only offered a helping hand to SDPJ as well as DSP candidates, but even supported candidates of new conservative parties. Also, in some cases, SDPJ-affiliated labor unions did not recommend some SDPJ candidates and backed other candidates instead.
These efforts are signs of more flexible relations between labor unions and political parties and contrast with the formerly fixed alignments. What is more, realization of electoral system reform and introduction of the smaller constituency system will call for unification of candidates who will confront LDP-backed politicians in individual constituencies. In such cases, close cooperation in the election will be required, further prompting flexible relations between labor unions and political parties.
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