Upcoming Elections will Determine the Next Government but Political Confusion will Likely Continue

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

With the recent change in the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the start button for the countdown to the general election has effectively been pressed. The party's choice of Yukio Hatoyama as its new leader did arouse some public criticism. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the DPJ has successfully strengthened its position. By appointing Katsuya Okada, his rival in the leadership race, to a key party post, Hatoyama prevented internal conflict surfacing at a time when the general election is just around the corner. Furthermore, Hatoyama moved former DPJ president Ichiro Ozawa to a position where he would be able to act with greater flexibility and concentrate on election campaigning.

Although it is up to Prime Minister Taro Aso to set the exact timing, the general election must be held no later than the autumn when the term for the current House of Representatives expires.

Asked about the significance of upcoming general elections, most people would say that they provide Japanese people a genuine chance to choose government. It is expected that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the DPJ, whichever comes out the winner, will form a coalition with one or more smaller parties to take the reins of government. Of course, depending on the post-election political situation, we cannot rule out the possibility of the party coming in second place forming a coalition and taking power. Additionally, the two major parties, i.e., the LDP and the DPJ, may form a coalition government or a major political realignment leading to the establishment of new parties may take place. However, the major significance of the upcoming general election is undoubtedly that voters will be asked to choose between the LDP and the DPJ.

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The choice of government by voting can be defined as a result of electoral system reform in 1994, in which the previous multiple-seat constituency system was replaced by the current one comprising of single-seat constituencies and proportionally represented multiple-seat constituencies. The reform was instigated with the intention of revitalizing Japanese politics through competition between the two major parties and putting an end to the LDP's seemingly never-ending one-party rule. Throughout the history of Japanese constitutional politics since the establishment of the Meiji government, a change in government through elections has been a rare occurrence. In the first general election, under the Constitution of Japan held in 1947, the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) won and replaced Nihon Jiyuto (Japan Liberal Party). Meanwhile, as a result of the 1993 general election, the LDP government of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa was replaced by the non-LDP coalition government of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. However, both these cases are considered exceptional. The former occurred in the midst of postwar confusion, whereas the break-up of the LDP, rather than the general election itself, was the decisive factor for the latter.

In this context, the forthcoming general election should be an event of historical significance. However, despite the approach of a supposedly decisive battle, there seems to be little, if any, sense of excitement or anticipation among the general public. I suspect the biggest reason for this is that people cannot see what difference their choice in the general election will make in terms of government policies. In fact, neither the LDP nor the DPJ have been able to offer concrete policy issues to contest the general election. The LDP does no more than stress its long-term experience as a governing party and depict the DPJ as undependable, while the DPJ can only highlight the novelty attached to a change in power and denounce LDP politics as institutionally exhausted. Both parties may refute this, but no decisive policy differences can be observed.

Back in the 1990s, there was a clear difference in their stances on fiscal policy. Under the political regime established in 1955, the LDP carried out the role of distributing the fruits of economic growth to rural areas in the form of government subsidies and public works projects. Mounting dissatisfaction with the LDP system, particularly among urban voters, generated momentum for a counterbalancing power, resulting in the growth of the DPJ. At the time, the two camps were, at least to some extent, distinct. The LDP was generally defined as a party in favor of "big government and stability," leaning toward rural interests, and the DPJ as a party in favor of "small government and reform," reflecting more urban interests.

The emergence of the LDP-led government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi changed everything. Under the banner of reform, the Koizumi administration embarked on the privatization of postal services and drastic cutbacks in public works projects, moves that would have been unthinkable in the pre-Koizumi LDP. This earned him enormous popularity and the LDP, riding on back of the so-called "Koizumi Phenomenon," scored a huge victory in the 2005 general election. With its thunder on reform advocacy stolen by the LDP, the DPJ found itself on the defensive and elected Ichiro Ozawa as its new party leader. Under the leadership of Ozawa, the DPJ adopted the strategy of appealing to rural voters, who were feeling abandoned by the LDP under the Koizumi regime, and won a resounding victory in the upper house election in 2007. As a result, the DPJ emerged as the No. 1 party in the House of Councilors, creating a situation referred to as nejire kokkai (a "twisted Diet") with the lower house controlled by the LDP-led ruling coalition and the upper by the DPJ and other opposition parties. Shocked by this turn of events, the LDP backpedaled on Koizumi's policy of reform, shifting to policies geared to �gdisparity correction.�h. In particular, the coalition government embarked on massive fiscal spending sprees following the severe deterioration of the economy in the second half of 2008.,

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Such competition for maximizing voting support is not the only reason why the policies of LDP and the DPJ have drawn closer - there are some structural factors as well(see Figure). Unlike the United States, Europe, or China, there is no clear-cut class conflict in Japan. What we have are the diverse interests of people from various walks of life. Thus, for political parties, providing benefits to all sorts of people is the most effective choice of economic policy. Moreover,, it is also difficult to demonstrate fundamental differences in foreign policy because Japan, as a sea faring country attaching great importance to international trade, has no other practical choice but to base its foreign policy on the principle of broad international cooperation while continuing to rely on the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Figure:Two-party model advocated by political scientist Anthony Downs
Two-party model advocated by political scientist Anthony Downs

This situation tends to drive both the LDP and the DPJ to overly emphasize their mutual differences or make extreme campaign promises. The issue of restricting hereditary candidacies is one typical example. Undeniably, there are too many hereditary politicians, those who have inherited their support base from their kin. But the true problem lies in the fact that barriers are too high for individuals with no political family background to become politicians, resulting in little competition for hereditary candidates. If they are to alter this situation, the two parties should be looking for ways to make it easier for newcomers with no electoral power base to campaign, rather than imposing half-hearted restrictions on hereditary candidacies. In the first place, the very idea that two parties - one led by a grandson of late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and the other by a grandson of another former prime minister, Ichiro Hatoyama ? are discussing ways of restricting hereditary candidacies is absolute nonsense.

At the present time, the LDP is using "economic stimuli" as its slogan, while the DPJ is campaigning under the banner of "people's lives first." Though not without differences in specific policy proposals, the two parties march to the same tune in that they both pursue policies that are easy on the ears of the electorate. Suppose that the public is discontented about a restaurant with only "curry over rice" on the menu. They are initially excited at the news of a new dish being added to the menu, only to find out that "rice with curry" is the additional dish. The seasoning may be slightly different, but it would be difficult for them to get excited wondering which dish to choose. This is the situation in which Japanese voters find themselves today.

"Well then," they might say, "we may just as well give this new "DPJ rice with curry" a try. A series of recent polls shows that the DPJ has greater public support than the LDP. And this can be interpreted as an indication that people are favoring a "give-it-a-try" attitude.

Should the DPJ win the forthcoming general election and form a new government under its leadership, the Diet would recover from its current "twisted" state to become an "untwisted" state with the DPJ and its allies gaining control of both chambers of the Diet. But the danger then is that the DPJ may make an all out attempt to differentiate itself from the LDP-led government. For instance, transforming the public pension system from its current contribution-base to a tax-based system or making drastic changes in policy regarding the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture would require enormous political energy and could provoke a diplomatic backlash or undermine the unity of party members. On the other hand, however, should the DPJ, as a ruling party, back away from extreme campaign promises to pursue more moderate policies, it would come under fierce attack from the new opposition party, the LDP. In addition, a scandal involving an executive party member, like the recent controversy over Ichiro Ozawa, could push the DPJ into a corner.

The DPJ-led government might show its colors by changing the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats in rooting out bureaucratic corruption and digging up the so-called "buried treasure of Kasumigaseki" (reserve funds and surpluses in the government's special accounts) in order to finance the implementation of its policies. Taking this approach, the DPJ, as the party with the largest representation, would be able to assert its authority to a considerable extent. Furthermore, such measures would probably win support from the general public and it would be difficult for the opposing LDP to object. Indeed, as party president Hatoyama claims, the DPJ would be able to carry out a "thorough spring cleaning" of Kasumigaseki, the heart of Japan's bureaucracy..

At the same time, however, this could create serious problems for the future of Japanese politics. Significant intervention in bureaucratic affairs by politicians in rule is tantamount to testing the loyalty of bureaucrats toward the administration. Such actions could create pro-DPJ and pro-LDP factions within the bureaucracy, creating a collusive relationship between the governing party and supporting bureaucrats and administrative confusion when the government changes. In fact, from the late Taisho period (1912-1926) to the early Showa period (1926-1989), a time when two major parties - the Seiyukai and the Kenseikai-Minseito - competed intensely with each other, the bureaucrats were split into two factions. The situation generated widespread public distrust and eventually led to the fall of party politics.

But then, would we feel more comfortable with the same old "LDP curry over rice?" Under this scenario, the "twisted Diet" would continue and the LDP-led coalition would probably lose a majority of two-thirds in the House of Representatives. Although the LDP has been boastful of its governing ability, underpinned by years of experience as a ruling party, this assertion does not sound very convincing after two preceding prime ministers from the LDP - Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda - successively abandoned their governing duties. The LDP would be able to sail through for some time on the back of their victory in the latest national election, but over the course of time, however, the political situation would become increasingly difficult to manage.

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However, a major political realignment would throw Japanese politics into utter chaos, whereas a coalition between the LDP and the DPJ would not materialize unless they found an extraordinary legitimate reason. That is, we cannot really expect to see stability restored to politics or the emergence of a strong government as a result of the general election. This is indeed a lamentable situation for the general public. The only choice is to put up with whatever the outcome may be and consider it a transitional ordeal. The on-going inter-party competition resembles the intra-faction competition within the LDP of old. At the end of the day, invigorating policy debate in the Diet and strengthening the political oversight of the bureaucracy through inter-party competition is about the only way to fortify Japanese politics.

* Translated by RIETI.

May 27, 2009 Nihon Keizai Shimbun

July 15, 2009