Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Toward a Two-Party System

Anyone who has followed Japanese politics over the past two decades. as I have, can’t help but be amazed at the transformation that has taken place in recent years.

This was first manifested in the Liberal Democratic Party’s blowout in 2005. Last week the opposition Democratic Party of Japan returned the favor, handing the LDP an historic defeat in the election for half of the House of Councilors, Japan’s senate.

A slow motion political evolution that commenced some 15 years ago is beginning to bear fruit. The long quest to transform Japan into a competitive, two-party democracy is, closer to realization than some, including longtime Japan watchers, are willing to admit.

To understand what has happened in Japan, one has to look back to the situation that prevailed from the founding of the LDP in 1955 to the 1990s. Japan’s Diet was essentially gerrymandered to ensure that the LDP maintained a firm grip on the government.

Diet members were chosen from large, multi-member districts. That meant that successful candidates often won with only about 10 per cent of the vote, or less. This system put a premium on local connections and pork barrel politics, Issues? What were they?

The electoral boundaries, drawn in the 1950s remained unchanged, even as the rural areas emptied of people drawn to the major cities. The main “opposition” the Socialist Party of Japan was stuck in Cold War thinking, often more Marxist than the Japanese Communists.

The party had no real interest in governing Japan, only in maintaining enough seats to deny the LDP the two-thirds majority to change the Japan’s pacifist constitution. It seldom ran enough candidates to form a majority even if everyone of them was successful.

It was fashionable at the time to say that the fault lay somewhere in the Japanese psyche, that they were not suited for democracy, or democracy was not suited to them. Never mind that the voters often displayed a healthy “throw-the-bums-out” attitude at the local and prefectural levels.

Things started to change in 1993 with the successful no confidence motion against the government of prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who recently died. That ushered in several years of confusion, including the absurdity or a socialist premier supported by an LDP majority. Nevertheless, change was in the offing.

First, the Diet junked the multi-member districts and replaced them with 300 single-member seats (the rest of the 480-seat House of Representatives elected through proportional representation.

Second, the opposition went through several metamorphosis, finally coalescing into the present Democratic Party. In doing so it abandoned knee-jerk opposition to the self-defense forces and the US-Japan Security Agreement in the interests of electability.

The Democrats have not yet sealed the deal in convincing the Japanese people that they are a viable alternative government. Their big win doesn’t change that since the government depends on a majority in the lower house, whose members were not up for re-election. But they are getting closer.

Meanwhile, politics are undergoing a sea change.

For one thing Japanese elections become much more dominated by issues than before. Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Diet and called a general election on the sole issue of privatizing the postal system in 2005 and picked up more than 80 seats.

Of course, Koizumi was shrewd enough to add some dramatics to the election by expelling dissident members from his own party and recruiting celebrities to run against them with official party endorsements, giving the press plenty to feast on.

There was perhaps no overriding issue involved in the recent election, unless anger over a big screw up in pension accounting constitutes an “issue”. But the voters sent a clear message that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s priorities were not theirs.

Abe is a curious figure to lead Japan in this new political era. He is the youngest prime minister since the end of World War II and the first born after the war. Yet he seems very much a part of the old order.

Perhaps being the grandson of a prime minister and the son of an almost certain to be prime minister cut short by death, Abe came of age too closely cosseted by his family’s advisers and hangers on. He certainly absorbed their obsession with nationalist ideas such as rewriting the constitution.

As of this writing Abe is resisting demands that he resign (previous premiers have resigned over lesser defeats), but one can imagine that he will be changing his tune. A major test comes up soon with the anniversary of the end of World War II where Abe will have to decide whether to follow his predecessor’s footsteps in visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. So far, he has finessed that sensitive issue.

As issues have become more important in elections, the influence of geography has declined. It is hard to think of the LDP as being beholden to farming and rural interests when in 2005 the party captured every one of Tokyo’s 25 Diet seats, save two – unseating 10 Democrats in the process.

At the same time in the House of Councilors’s election the Democrats knocked off LDP stalwarts in many rural and depopulated districts that had been LDP strongholds for generations.

As many political observers have noted, the most important political development is the emergence of a large floating electorate that has no strong attachments for any party. As this phenomenon grows, expect to see many more wild swings in Japanese elections.


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