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Japan's elections -- finally, democracy comes

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For virtually the first time in its history, Japan will have an election, tomorrow 30 August, where two solid rival political parties will have a real contest.  And what’s more, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will win.  For the first time in its history, the Japanese people will vote for a change in government.  

According to some unpublished polls, the victory will be a massive landslide.  We have passed a tipping point.  This effect could be very powerful in conformist, conservative Japan.  If everyone believes that the DPJ will win handsomely, everyone will follow the trend and vote DPJ which now looks like winning 320 lower house seats, a full two-thirds.  And to put things beyond all reasonable doubt, the latest unemployment figure was announced yesterday, 5.7 per cent, the highest level in the postwar era. 

If you want to discuss politics in Japan, speak with foreigners.  The locals do not really have much of a political education.  At school, debating and discussion do not figure highly.  And in a society that places much emphasis on harmony (“wa”), disagreement is also discouraged. 

The two main parties, the longstanding Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the DPJ, do not present very different policy programs.  The DPJ wants a more equal relationship with the US, but now that it will win, it is softening its tone.  The DPJ will give greater emphasis to social spending, but the enormous budget deficit and public debt will act as a brake on this.  The DPJ want to wrest political power from the all-powerful bureaucrats.  But officials from many ministries are already in close dialogue with DPJ leaders.  The real challenge will be working with those ministries with lots of pork barrel, like construction and agriculture. 

In reality, the DPJ will be voted in because the country has had enough of the ineffectual LDP and its hapless leader, Prime Minister Aso.  How can the LDP be credible when it has still has no strategy for getting the country out of a crisis that started almost two decades ago? There are some who say that the LDP has already given up.  Many in the party know that it has to change, and that losing the election is the best way to bring about change.  The only ones who have not given up are the business sector.  Hardly surprising, given that about two-thirds of Japanese companies, and half of large companies, do not pay corporate taxes because of obscure tax subsidies for research, investment incentives or because they lose money, according to the OECD.

The most interesting consequence of the election may be the future of the LDP.  In reality, the LDP and DPJ are not very different in their philosophy and programs.  They pitch to the whole nation.  And the DPJ is substantially made up of LDP defectors.  This means that the diversity of factions within each party is much greater than the differences between the parties.

Thus, one scenario keenly debated is the breaking up of the LDP.  It may splinter into different groups.  Even in government the DPJ will have difficulty managing its own different factions and egos, especially that of recently ousted leader Ozawa.  And the DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama hardly has Obama-like qualities.  As reported by AP News, Temple University’s Jeff Kingston described him in the following terms -- ‘’ He is a miserable candidate … He is wooden, he is stiff, he can’t improvise.  His image is that he is not a very decisive leader, somebody who’s not so charismatic, not so strong-willed”.  Japan could be heading into a period of political instability, and policy paralysis – the last thing the nation needs.

One can hope that this will ultimately lead to some maturation in Japanese politics – that two parties with two different philosophies and visions for the country could emerge.  This could give Japanese citizens some choice in deciding the fate of their nation.

But the Japanese people have been given very little political culture.  Politicians are allowed to get away an appallingly low level of debates and programs.  The dominant political culture is back-room dealing between ministries, politicians and business.  It’s gonna take a long time …