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Japan's lost election

Andrew Stevens
31 July 2007

The normally routine mid-term House of Councillors (upper-house) election in Japan turned out on 29 July 2007 to be an unprecedented meltdown for prime minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (Jiminto / LDP) and his New Komeito coalition partners. In the 121 seats being contested (half of the total), the LDP won only thirty-seven, leaving the coalition with 104 in the chamber and thus ceding control to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto / DPJ).

The scandals, leadership failures and popular discontents that have led the LDP to this pass may have short-term aspects, but they also reflect deeper shifts in Japanese society. The campaign saw even rice farmers from hard-pressed rural areas (the LDP's traditional bastion) ditch the voting habits of a lifetime and opt for the avowedly metropolitan DPJ, and those at the sharp end of widening income disparities seek an outlet for their grievances. Indeed, the election was the first to indicate that those affected by the "lost generation" of Japanese citizens - from the burgeoning underclass of "Neets" (not in employment, education or training) to the withdrawn teenage hikikomori - could reinforce the rebuke of centrist voters to the expectation of perpetual governance by the LDP.

Andrew Stevens is an adviser for a Japanese research centre based in London and also political editor of www.CityMayors.com

He writes in a personal capacity

Also by Andrew Stevens in openDemocracy:

"Japan's fifty-year political itch" (10 August 2005)

"Japan's first presidential election" (12 September 2005)

"The Koizumi legacy and Japan's future" (21 September 2006)

"The Paris-Tokyo syndrome" (7 June 2007)

Shinzo Abe's immediate reaction to his and the LDP's setback has been to pledge to remain in office to fulfil his duties. He may be much humbled, he may have endured a severe battering, but the prime minister had clearly learned nothing from the experience. Instead, he repeated his tired mantra about building a "beautiful country", even as party dignitaries and supporters could see only ruins.

A ghost at the party

After less than a year at the helm of the LDP since his election in September 2006, Abe is now the further weakened and unpopular leader of a damaged party, with rivals biding their time while expressing barely-coded recommendations that he should resign; the prime minister "must humbly listen to the public's voice", said Yoichi Masuzoe, chairman of the upper house policy committee.

Ichiro Ozawa has undeniably cemented his own grip on the leadership of the DPJ as the principal opposition party after a steady stream of resignations following a string of electoral defeats and factional tensions. In his attempt to turn the election into a resignation issue for Abe by offering to resign if the DPJ failed at least to deprive the administration of a majority in the upper house, Ozawa - buffetted in past months by inner-party doubts about his health and voter appeal - effectively turned the election into a referendum on his own leadership.

In its own terms this strategy was a success. Moreover, the hegemony of the LDP in Japan's national political life means that the DPJ's emergence as more of the opposition party (rather than - as several analysts have argued - only the largest among the country's fragmented party system) makes it possible to argue that the longed-for genuine two-party system in Japan has come closer to realisation.

Yet for all the talk of a historic victory over the LDP, progressives still have little to cheer in Abe's "utter defeat". A glance at Ozawa's own trajectory - as a defector from the LDP when his own career as a pork-barrelling parliamentary organiser began to slide - reveals how shallow his victory is and how frail the hope that he can pioneer a genuine political the repository alternative in Japan.

In this light, the ghost of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi - in his own eyes, the only politician capable of modernising Japan by "destroying" the LDP from within - is more potent than ever. Indeed, some even raise the prospect of the charismatic reformist emerging from his post-premiership retirement to come to the aid of party and country once more.

A system exposed

It was, then, a curious election that leaves the next phase of Japanese politics far less resolved than the stark figures might suggest. Shinzo Abe's sheer inability to acknowledge common voter concerns over two recent crises in particular - deficits in pensions contributions (and loss of 50 million pension records), and the lack of opportunities for those of working age - was underscored by a thread of absurdism in the campaign (including the candidacies of the granddaughter of Class-A war criminal General Tojo and Peru's ex-president Alberto Fujimori from his Santiago house-arrest)

In a sense, this air of absurdity mirrored the Tokyo gubernatorial election in April 2007, which resulted in a predictable third term for nationalist Shintaro Ishihara - but which was enlivened by the worldwide YouTube popularity of an anarchist candidate's election address declaring Japan "the most detestable nation" (until the election authority ordered the site to take it down).

Now it's back to what passes for normal politics in Japan. Ozawa's DPJ must now calculate how best to make use of its newfound control of the upper house: through frustrating the LDP-led coalition's legislative agenda, using censure against the next minister in trouble, or both. Some have raised the prospect of a pact between the LDP and DPJ around common causes in the field of national security and public-sector reform, but this remains - for the moment - too far-fetched to be realistic.

For his own part, Abe is obliged to fend off predictable demands to resign and make way for a more competent caretaker for the LDP; the most likely successor at present is the popular if gaffe-prone foreign minister Taro Aso.

The latest bout of internal instability for the ailing LDP is also a sobering comment on the health and vitality of Japanese democracy. A ruling party that is incapable of accepting policy failure and the need for further wide-ranging reform (beyond tinkering with the machinery of government and the country's so-called "pacifist" constitution) is a serious enough problem. It also reflects the way that Japan's political architecture as a whole is out of step with a changing society, and unable to provide appropriate vehicles for the airing of widely-shared popular worries on a range of issues, from the prosaic business of daily life to Japan's overall future in the 21st century.

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