A Watershed Election and Its Policy Implications

Prime Minister Aso's decision to dissolve the lower house and call a general election in the face of rock-bottom public approval ratings has all but ensured an imminent end to the LDP's longtime monopoly on power. What impact will the advent of a new government have on Japan's foreign, security, and economic policies?

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Japan is weeks away from a general election that is widely expected to usher in a new era in Japanese politics. In the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections held on July 12, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a historic defeat at the hands of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which is beginning to look unstoppable. A day later, LDP President and Prime Minister Taro Aso responded to the setback by announcing his intention to dissolve the House of Representatives on July 21 and hold a general election on August 30. Although some intra-party dickering over the timing of the election is expected, Aso's schedule seems likely to prevail. And when the dust has settled, the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito will in all likelihood have lost their majority in the lower house, opening the way for a new regime centered on the DPJ.

Significance of the August Election

Such a change in government would make the coming general election a watershed in the history of Japanese democracy. The LDP has monopolized control of the government (either alone or as part of a coalition) ever since it was formed from a merger of conservative forces in 1955, except for an interlude of less than a year in 1993–94, when power passed briefly to a coalition of anti-LDP forces led first by Morihiro Hosokawa and then by Tsutomu Hata.

A democracy that continues for more than a half-century without a full-fledged shift in power is quite a historical anomaly. Political scientists have studied postwar Japan's single-party rule extensively, and most agree that it was made possible by two key circumstances: Japan's extended period of strong economic growth and the stable international structure imposed by the Cold War framework.

Simply put, from 1955 until 1992, Japanese voters had only two real options to choose from. On the one hand, there was the LDP, which bore the standard of democracy and economic liberalism. On the other hand, there was the Japan Socialist Party and its allies, who promoted a vastly different ideology. Faced with such a choice, Japanese voters behaved as one might expect. While they sometimes cast protest votes for the JSP when dissatisfied with LDP policy or conduct, they never went so far as to put the daily management of government in the hands of a party that did not fully support Japan's democratic free-market system.

After the first non-LDP government in decades rose to power in 1993, practical alternatives to the LDP—that is, other parties committed to democracy and the free market—finally emerged in the form of the (now defunct) New Frontier Party and today's DPJ. At that stage, however, a new party could not hope to inspire the same level of confidence as the LDP, which, for all its failings, had presided over economic growth, political stability, and a relatively equitable distribution of income for almost four decades.

In recent years, however, the dynamic has shifted. First, a changing environment has removed the basic conditions that once guaranteed the loyalty of the LDP's key constituencies: rapid economic growth and the relatively uniform distribution of wealth. Second, the public has been witness time and again to the kinds of problems that occur when a single party stays in power too long: "system fatigue" characterized by corruption, overdependence on the bureaucracy, and bureaucratic inefficiency.

Pathology of a Party in Decline

Among the most serious problems to which this system fatigue has given rise are those connected with the National Pension System. Most Japanese voters today are deeply troubled about the health of the pension system and doubt that they will ever receive the benefits owing to them. This crisis came about not only as a result of challenges stemming from the slowdown in economic growth—problems that policy makers in the era of fast growth and ever-increasing revenues failed to take into account—but also because of egregious mismanagement by a government bureaucracy suffering from advanced system fatigue.

Meanwhile, the party has been hit hard by the structural decline of once-powerful industry and professional organizations representing the LDP's core constituencies, including farmers, physicians, the construction industry, and stakeholders in the postal system. The erosion of this base meant that the LDP needed to go beyond these organizations and constituencies and seek broad popular support if it was to stand up to the pragmatically oriented opposition forces that emerged in the 1990s. The master of this strategy was Jun'ichiro Koizumi, who took office as president of the LDP in 2001. By slashing public works spending, reducing central government subsidies to outlying prefectures, and pursuing a program of market-oriented regulatory reform with postal privatization as its centerpiece, the Koizumi cabinet garnered widespread support from urban voters outside the traditional LDP base and became a popular phenomenon.

Despite the Koizumi reforms, however, the LDP missed the opportunity to replace its old organizational support apparatus with a new popular base and reinvent itself as a party. It enjoyed a brief surge in popular support by riding on the coattails of a charismatic leader, but once Koizumi stepped down, the deep structural gap between the old LDP and the demands of a new age became more glaring than ever.

Particularly problematic is the LDP's traditional reliance on local campaign organizations known as koenkai (support groups), grassroots groups virtually independent of party authority whose purpose is solely to secure support and funds for individual politicians. When faced with the task of finding a successor for an outgoing Diet member, a local koenkai, preoccupied with its own organizational cohesion and continuity, will often seek out the son of a current LDP lawmaker as the kind of candidate most likely to satisfy everyone in the group, instead of searching for someone with new skills suited to a changing environment. This has contributed to the rapid proliferation of hereditary lawmakers among LDP Diet members. (For more on the subject, see Sota Kato's article "Hereditary Lawmakers in an Era of Politically Led Policymaking.")

We need not look far to see the consequences of this trend. Koizumi stepped down as prime minister in September 2006, at the height of his popularity. First Shinzô Abe and then Yasuo Fukuda succeeded him as party president, each taking his turn as prime minister without the "baptism" of a general election. Both failed to lead effectively, lost the public's support, and vacated the post after barely a year in office. Now the Aso cabinet, with its abysmal approval ratings, is following in their footsteps.

One thing all three of these unpopular prime ministers have in common is a father or grandfather who served as prime minister and had considerable clout within the LDP. Abe, Fukuda, and Aso all basically inherited their Diet seats and thus had relatively little work to do in terms of cultivating a constituency. This has led a number of analysts to speculate that their weak leadership is the product of a system that allowed them to achieve political success without ever facing serious competition. The LDP's system fatigue has revealed itself not only in its crumbling organizational support but also in its failure to develop effective new leaders.

As the LDP's system fatigue has grown ever more apparent, voters have begun looking to the competition of a genuine two-party system as a way to raise the level of politics and government in Japan. This, rather than any real display of competence, has put the untested DPJ in an excellent position to take the helm for the first time since its formation in 1998. But assuming the DPJ wins, what course can it be expected to chart for the nation?

Policy Prospects

In an election that promises to bring about a historic change of government, the key campaign issue is going to be whether there should be a change of government. In other words, specific policy issues are unlikely to play a major role in lower house races around the country. The DPJ, having never actually held the reins of government, has no record to run on, and its actual ability to govern is an unknown quantity. Its election strategy, therefore, will be to stress the failures and the general decline of the LDP and focus on the promise of the "change of government" in which so many hopes now reside.

For, in fact, voters have high expectations of the DPJ, untested though it may be. In a word, they are hoping it will sever the unholy alliance between the LDP and the bureaucracy and bring back efficient government. The DPJ has homed in on these very points, repeatedly pointing out the systemic decay in the LDP and the bureaucracy and pledging to control the bureaucrats so as to put policy decisions in the hands of the political party the people have chosen to lead them. It has even gone so far as to announce a plan to place about 100 political appointees inside the administrative apparatus.

But if the unknowns surrounding the DPJ have led to inflated expectations among voters, they have also led some to fret over the party's practical ability to manage the government, particularly where foreign relations and security policy are concerned. Some observers in Japan and abroad have voiced concerns that the new government could destabilize Japan's close friendship and alliance with the United States, a relationship that has thus far been a signal success from Japan's viewpoint.

Indeed, the DPJ's record in this arena is not altogether encouraging. For example, it tried to block moves by the LDP–New Komeito coalition to extend the Marine Self Defense Force's refueling mission in the Indian ocean, which provides logistic support for the US anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Its 2008 policy platform calls for building a more "equal relationship" with the United States and suggests that it would seek to revise the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement. With regard to the transfer of facilities at Futenma Air Station in Okinawa—something the two governments have spent years negotiating—the DPJ is calling for a solution different from that already agreed on by Tokyo and Washington. By throwing a last-minute wrench in the works, the new government threatens to provoke the ire of the Obama administration.

The policy direction of a DPJ administration vis-à-vis the Japan-US alliance is difficult to predict in part because the party encompasses both realists in the LDP mold who support the alliance and politicians of a more liberal bent, not to mention former members of the Social Democratic Party (formerly the JSP). Moreover, even if the DPJ takes control of the House of Representatives, it may well be obliged to forge a coalition with the SDP in order to control the House of Councillors, where it lacks a majority—another source of anxiety for some government officials and allies.

There are also some grounds for optimism in the realm of diplomacy. Among the LDP there has long been a minority contingent inclined toward a conservative or nationalistic brand of historical revisionism, which has been the cause of periodic flare-ups with China and South Korea. Since DPJ has few members of this bent, we may see a decline in these diplomatic disputes over the "rewriting of history."

In terms of economic policy, it is unclear whether the DPJ will pursue deregulation and other reforms more vigorously or retreat in the opposite direction. Initially, the DPJ's base consisted mostly of urban pro-reform voters, but after Koizumi came to power, the party worked hard under Ichiro Ozawa's leadership to rally the support of rural voters opposed to economic reform. This strategy secured the DPJ a solid support base, but it also made the party's economic orientation difficult to define.

My own opinion is that, in the areas of diplomacy and security policy, concerns about the DPJ negative impact are overstated. Once the party is in the position of running the government, it will be forced to respond to circumstances realistically. As for voters, their real concern is domestic issues. Questioned on this issue during a symposium in Japan not long ago, Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush and a vigorous booster of the Japan-US alliance, pointed out that campaign rhetoric and actual policy are two entirely different things. In fact, in its soon-to-be released manifesto for the coming election, the DPJ is already moving toward a more pragmatic policy stance by deleting the clause calling for termination of the Marine Self-Defense Force's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. All in all, the new administration is far more likely to maintain the status quo when it comes to foreign policy and security than to set out in a new direction. Although maintaining the status quo could also be problematic, it would surely be preferable to a negative change in course.

As noted previously, the DPJ lacks a majority in the upper house, and will thus be forced to form a coalition even if it wins a majority in the lower house in the general election. The most likely coalition partners are the SDP and the tiny People's New Party, consisting of former LDP members who fled the party after opposing Koizumi's postal privatization plan. However, if the election turns into a rout, some LDP lawmakers may be concerned enough to defect and form their own party. In that case, the LDP spinoff would become a prime candidate for coalition partner, since the conservative wing of the DPJ has more in common with the LDP than with the SDP when it comes to policy.

Given the DPJ's lack of experience as a ruling party and the absence of a strong party consensus on the major policy issues, the orientation of its government policies will be largely determined by the makeup of the coalition it builds. Thus, while no one would deny the significance of the upcoming election and the new government that is expected to emerge in its aftermath, we should be wary of assuming that the change will immediately usher in a clear-cut shift in Japanese policy.

Tsuneo Watanabe

  • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation

    Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation