Home [ POLITICS ] After Japan's election -- low expectations, mean big opportunities

After Japan's election -- low expectations, mean big opportunities

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It’s done.  Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is gone.  It lost in a landslide to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).  What does it mean?  What does the future hold?

This is not just an ordinary election where an unpopular Prime Minister and government get replaced by the opposition.  This brings to an end the whole post-war political system.  For the first time in the post war era, the Japanese people have voted the government out of office.  There can be no democracy without political competition, so at last we have real democracy in Japan. 

It’s a new ball game!  Even if the DPJ is unsuccessful, we cannot return to the old system.  There is a new dynamic.  In any event, Japan will not have another election for four years, as the DPJ could never win like that again.  It means that the LDP has four years in which to reinvent itself.

How did it happen?  It was not the unpopularity of the Prime Minister.  Apart from Koizumi, Japanese prime ministers have always been unpopular.  They come and go.  It was not the economic difficulties, Japan has had economic difficulties for 20 years.  And traditionally, the LDP was considered a safer bet in difficult times.  It was also not because the DPJ is great.  It is not.  And so expectations of the DPJ are very low.

The election result represents the rejection of Japanese post-war politics.  It is the culmination of several factors.  The LDP lost touch with the Japanese public.  The public does not want more and more highways and dams.  Outside of Tokyo, people are mad.  Tokyo is doing OK.  But outside of Tokyo, people are angry.  They are not worried about the future, they are worried about now.  They want hospitals and doctors, and jobs for the youth. 

The LDP was unable to keep track of its own society.  There has been a collapse of the LDP political machine, a machine that brought in votes all round the country.  The political machine collapsed for two reasons, values have changed and the machine could not deliver.  Indeed, this is the end of machine politics.  The LDP must come back as a new party, not a pork barrel party.

An anti-LDP fever gripped the nation.  People voted for change.  The DPJ must now show voters that it can deliver.

The victory of the DPJ will change the nature of governance.  The DPJ is serious about changing the relationship between government and bureaucrats.  There will be more power in the Prime Minister’s office.  Bureaucrats who criticize the government will be punished.  The DPJ wants bureaucrats technical expertise, but the bureaucrats must implement the decisions that politicians make.  Can this happen?  Not if the DPJ just does bureaucrat bashing, they must co-opt the bureaucrats.  Japan does not have any serious think tanks, so the DPJ must enlist the bureaucrats.  If they do not pull this off, Japan could be in for major paralysis.  Another change in governance will be unifying the party and the government, such as by giving senior party officials ministerial appointments.  Party officials will not be able to criticize or distance themselves from government positions.

The DPJ’s economic policy is not irresponsible.  The spending program is very modest – instituting a child allowance, eliminating tuition fees for public schools, worker training programmes, income support for farmers (not immediate), lifting highway tolls (gradually).  No increase in the deficit is planned this year.  The key people in the DPJ are fiscal conservatives, they are worried about the effect of the deficit on interest rates.  The public has no stomach for deficit financing.

What is lacking in the DPJ program is deregulation.  Deregulation of health, social services, long term care would mean that old people would not have to leave to Australia and other place.  Kyushu could become Japan’s Florida.

Although there is no long term growth strategy, the DPJ wants a more consumer-oriented growth – giving money to the people so that they can spend – a more consumer-driven economy.

Regarding foreign relations, the DPJ is just as committed to the US as are the LDP.  But there will be lots of new young people in the Diet, who don’t know the war.  There is a new sense among Japanese political leaders, especially on the military front.  After 60 years, do we really need so many American troops in Okinawa?


So, what should the Obama administration do?  Nothing!  Let reality sink, in 6 months time, the DPJ position will be similar to the LDP’s.  What should Hatoyama do regarding the US?  He should also wait.  He should only go to Washington when he has proposals developed.  There is a lot of DPJ talk now about Japan having a more equal relationship with the US.  Sue, but many Americans think that Japan has had a free ride.  Japan could do a lot, not just militarily.  It could help clean up China’s environment, employ its water technology and so on. 


There will also be not much change in relations with Asia.  Japan’s prosperity depends more and more on Asia’s growth.  Japan has to ride China’s wave to remain successful.  Japan needs to treat Asia as an extended domestic market.  Overall with regard to Asia, Japan needs (as the US does) to engage and hedge (staying close to the US is hedging).


All things considered, the DPJ has an excellent opportunity to make things work, in part because there are not high expectations.  It will be helped by the fact that the LDP will likely go through a period of infighting, and take a while to redefine itself.  And while Hatoyama is a not an impressive leader, he has grown a lot.  But has he grown enough?  Is he too nice a guy?


A headache for the DPJ will be all the new, young, first-time Diet members.  Ozawa, the former DPJ leader, could play a useful role in keeping them under control.  But here is the real risk for the DPJ, Ozawa.  He has a knack for ruining things.  He could easily do so again by acting as though he, not Hatoyama, is really in charge. 


If the DPJ does badly, in four years time there will be a massive swing back to the LDP.  Neither party has “core supporters” like in Western countries.  In the US, there are people who would always vote Republican, no matter what, no matter how popular Obama is.


In these circumstances, Japan would move into a period of instability, and immeasurable decline.