Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sea Change in Japan

The longtime dominance of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has sometimes been called a model of Asian-style democracy. The people expressed their will in regular elections, yet the same party always won. The country rode the resulting stability to economic greatness.

The LDP’s recent landslide victory seemed to confirm that nothing has changed. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan looks destined to spend years, maybe even decades, in the political wilderness. At first glance, the cause of a genuine two-party democracy in Japan has had an enormous setback.

Japan’s ruling party has now held virtually unbroken power for 50 years, almost as long as the decidedly undemocratic Chinese Communist Party. The brief administration of the former LDP rebel and prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, in 1993 hardly counts as a change in administration.

Almost alone among the Asian democracies, Japan has yet to pull off that fundamental trick of any democracy – namely, a peaceful transition of power from one party to another. That’s one reason why some people, even today, don’t think Japan is a truly functioning democracy.

In other words, Japan has not accomplished what Taiwan has done, what South Korea has done, what even Indonesia has done. On the other hand, such a transition may be more important for countries emerging from years of authoritarian rule than Japan. For them it was a kind of rite of passage, a sign that they had really arrived as full-fledged democracies.

For more than a decade political reforms in Japan have been aimed at creating a genuine two-party system, resulting in contests between two basically non-ideological parties, one just to the right of center, the other to the left. One party might be more nationalistic, the other relatively internationalist, one sensitive to consumer interests the other to producers.

The recent general election actually had many aspects of such a duel. The democrats were noticeably more international in outlook, criticizing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for needlessly antagonizing China, for instance. They didn’t make much headway this time against Koizumi’s theatrics and focus on one issue, postal privatization.

Yet the magnitude of Koizumi’s victory demonstrated a fundamental shift in the political tectonic plates in Japan. Just look at the election returns from Tokyo. Of the 25 seats in Tokyo, the LDP won 23. The main opposition Democratic Party, supposedly the urban party, won only one seat out of the 12 it held before the election. Komeito picked up the other one.

Election Returns in Tokyo

Before Sept. 11
DJP 12
LDP 10
Kom 1
NPN 1 *

After Sept. 11
LDP 23
Kom 1

NPN is New Nippon Party, one of the small splinter parties formed by LDP rebels who voted against postal privatization.

In the greater Tokyo area, including Saitama, Chiba and Kanegawa prefectures, the LDP took 63 out of 71 seats. The democrats lost 30 seats, wiping out the gains it had made in several previous elections. The LDP was so successful it literally ran out of candidates on the Tokyo proportional list and had to forfeit one seat to a Social Democrat.

For longtime Japan watchers, this result was revolutionary. Not so long ago it was an axiom that the LDP was the party of farmers and rural interests. They were said to exert power and influence out of all proportion to their numbers. By some kind of extraordinary political slight of hand, the LDP has transformed itself into an urban party.

Prime Minister Koizumi owes his huge majority to skillful manipulation of the media that attracted tens of thousands of unaffiliated voters to his side. These are the famed “floating” voters of Japan’s cities, whose influence was previously noted more in local elections. They floated overwhelmingly to the LDP this time, but given the right kind of leadership and issues, they might just as easily float to somebody else.

It is hard to imagine that the “ninja assassins” and “madonnas” that Koizumi recruited to run, not to mention the more than 80 brand new lawmakers, will develop the kinds of personal election machines that returned so many of the older style LDP pols (not to mention their sons and grandsons) year after year.

It may not look like it today, but the stage is set for a genuine two-party system in Japan, and it probably will come about a lot sooner than many people think.

Todd Crowell was a Senior Writer for Asiaweek and the author of Tokyo: City on the Edge.


Blogger Jonathan Dresner said...

There was also a brief Socialist interlude in the 90s, but it was in coalition....

Fundamentally, I think you're right, and I've written about the importance of peaceful power-transitions as a marker of true democracy. Taiwan isn't entirely there, since the ruling party hasn't give power back yet.

September 27, 2005 at 1:54 PM  
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