Divergent fate of left parties in political economic regime transitions: Italy and Japan in the 1990s

Hideko Magara*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The political earthquakes of Italy and Japan in the 1990s provide political scientists with a set of important puzzles: why did large-scale political changes take place almost at the same time in Italy and Japan? Why did some large postwar parties disappear (Democrazia Cristiana: DC; Japan Socialist Party: JSP) while other dominant parties either successfully transformed themselves into new parties (Partito Comunista Italiano/Partito Democratico della Sinistra/Democratici della Sinistra: PCI/PDS/DS) or found a way to survive (Liberal Democratic Party: LDP)? Italy and Japan have several similar backgrounds specific to them: defeat in World War II and a rapid economic growth led by the state in the 1950s and 1960s; long uninterrupted conservative rule reinforced by informal institutions, namely clientelism and consociativism;1 the exclusion of the leading leftist parties - the PCI in Italy and the JSP in Japan - from office for almost 50 years although they were the second largest parties in each country’s party system. After the 1970s Italy and Japan faced new issues commonly shared by other advanced capitalist countries: post-industrialization; changes in world politics (democratization, the removal of Berlin Wall) and in the world economy (globalization). Then in the early 1990s both Italy and Japan experienced the massive exposure of political scandals almost simultaneously. Political parties in both countries reacted to these scandals by changing electoral laws, from the pure PR (proportional representation) system in Italy and the semi-PR system in Japan, 2 to very similar systems based mainly on majoritarianism (yet mixed with PR to some extent - 25 percent in Italy, 40 percent in Japan).3 The Italian and Japanese outcomes were quite different. In Italy, after its historic victory in the 1996 elections, the ex-communist party (PDS) took office for the first time in Italian electoral history by successfully building a center-left coalition. On the other hand, the DC, once a powerful conservative party which had dominated Italian politics since the postwar era, disappeared after its devastating defeat in the 1994 elections. Instead, the center-right space was filled with a newly born party (Forza Italia) and an ex-neofascist nationalist party (Alleanza Nazionale). In Japan, it was the JSP, the second largest postwar party, that disappeared after participating in several ephemeral coalition governments. Instead, the Democratic Party, a new centrist party created under the initiative of several liberal-conservative politicians who had left the LDP, absorbed some liberal groups of ex-socialist politicians and came to confront the LDP. The LDP, which had continuously ruled Japanese politics on its own from 1955 to 1993, returned to office in 1994 after playing an oppositional role for a short period. Due to electoral reforms, Japanese politics moved further to the right; now the large conservative LDP competes with the centrist Democratic Party. There have been rhythmical government alternations in Italy since the second half of the 1990s, while in Japan such events were absent until 2009. Why do parties initiate important reforms? When threatened by new challenges in the polity, particularly in the electoral arena, parties initiate reform in order to survive. Large-scale reform is often preceded by party leaders’ perception of serious organizational crisis. In many cases, governing parties decide to change the rules of the game in order to maximize their representation, if no old party enjoys a dominant position (Boix 1999). Similarly, when office alternation is distributed evenly among the largest parties, reform are more likely, because politicians think supporting reform would generate support from a small number of middle-class voters. When office alternation is distributed unevenly among the largest parties, reforms are not likely, because the majority party does not have any incentives for reforms (Geddes 1991, 1994). Yet, there are possibilities, in which either the dominant ruling party or the opposition does initiate reform. In Italy, the largest opposition party (PCI/PDS) held the initiative of electoral reform in the early 1990s, while in Japan the strongest faction within the governing LDP promoted reform. It should be noted that, unlike the cases treated by Boix in which electoral systems shifted from plurality/majority to PR, in the Italian and Japanese cases, the electoral systems shifted from PR/semi-PR to mixed systems based mainly on majoritarianism in the 1990s. Large parties, either in office or out, certainly have strong incentives in modifying electoral systems from PR to majority. This does not explain, however, why in Italy the DC failed to achieve reform, and why in Japan the JSP could not play an important role. These parties were on the verge of collapse. What prevented these parties from promoting reform? What made their rational responses difficult?.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVarieties of Capitalism, Types of Democracy and Globalization
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781136342714
ISBN (Print)9780415671507
Publication statusPublished - 2012 Jan 1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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