Something completely different in Japan

Posted in Japan | 02-Sep-09 | Author: Axel Berkofsky| Source: Asia Times

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, smiles by his campaign poster after a press briefing at the party headquarters in Tokyo Monday, Aug. 31, 2009, a day after the party's landslide victory in parliamentary elections.

That's (finally) it. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is out of power in Japan, having governed the country since 1955 with a short interruption in 1993-1994.

Japan's electorate ended Japan's de-facto "one-party democracy", voting the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by 62-year-old Yukio Hatoyama, into power. While Hatoyama's DPJ won a whopping 308 seats in Sunday's Lower House elections, the LDP experienced the electoral disaster that had been predicted for weeks, winning only 119 seats, down from the 300 it held before.

There were 1,374 candidates for the 480 seats up for grabs, with 300 single-seat constituencies and 180 seats distributed from 11 proportional representation blocks.

It is a political earthquake and the end of Japanese politics as we know it, Gerald Curtis, a leading Japan expert and professor at Columbia University in New York, told the Financial Times on Sunday.

"This election is not about a ruling party with an unpopular prime minister [Taro Aso] in a bad economy, this is about the end of the post-war party system in Japan. It's the beginning of a different party system."

The losers
Indeed, Japan's political landscape has in recent years changed towards a two-party system with the DPJ and the LDP competing for votes (and equally importantly, for funds). Sunday's LDP election debacle, however, was not exactly what could be referred to as "competition" between two political parties, with the LDP loosing 60% of the Lower House seats it gained in 2005.

There is a growing consensus among analysts that it will take time, fresh faces and nothing less than fundamental inner-party governance changes before the LDP can turn into a credible political force as opposed to one seen as a group of gaffe-prone dinosaurs operating in a "client-state" with politicians and business providing each other with favors, Geisha bar entertainment and (lots of) cash.

Today's LDP is only a shadow of its former mighty and financially well-equipped self. The "catch-all" party with its numerous factions hosting reformists, anti-reformists, ultra-nationalists and revisionists had one central mission over the past 55 years: serving its "clients". Above all this meant big business, as well as the farming and probably most infamously Japan's construction sector.

In return for generous party funding as well as countless "donations" to individual LDP politicians who did not bother about receipts, the construction companies received the LDP's green light to turn Japan into a constant "state under construction", plastering the country with roads, highways and bridges to nowhere.

One-party dictatorship?
Fearing what was about to happen, a senior LDP politician last week warned of what he called a "one-party dictatorship", referring to a parliament with both chambers controlled by a DPJ majority. This is odd coming from a politician whose party governed Japan for essentially 54 years, but it is also factually wrong.

On Monday, the DPJ began talks with members of its opposition allies - the Social Democratic Party (SDP, seven seats) and the People's New Party (three seats) - on forming a coalition government.

Having won 308 Lower House seats, that is, 68 seats more than necessary to form a government without any coalition partners at all, the DPJ can enter negotiations fairly relaxed and probably with a "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude towards its (very) junior coalition partners.

Now for the hard part
So far, so good, but now for the hard part - governing a country in the middle of an economic recession burdened by an enormous public debt and suspended but badly-needed economic and structural reforms.

Well, not quite yet as far as Hatoyama and his aides are concerned. Economic hardship, painful but badly-needed reforms and other party spoilers have yet to be spelled out by the incoming premier and his aides.

Instead, the DPJ has so far chosen to focus on promising extra cash and subsidies to the electorate, including to business, normally the LDP's prime clientele.

Hatoyama has announced plans to reorganize Japan's 207,000 billion yen (US$2.172 billion) budget to increase social spending, such as paying parents a 312,000 yen ($3,273) a year child allowance, and increasing pensions as well as the number of government-financed higher education scholarships. Road tolls will also be scrapped and corporate taxes for small companies reduced to 11%.

All of this with a public deficit likely to reach 200% of gross domestic product by end-2009, a fact that has to take part in the DPJ's post-election policy agenda.

From power to pencil-pushing?
Speaking of (possibly) empty promises. The DPJ has pledged to appoint 100 lawmakers from the DPJ-led coalition in government as senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries to improve (well, for the first time introduce) parliamentary control of the powerful ministerial bureaucracy.

The top bureaucrats will not give up their powers without a fight, seeing themselves turned from decision-makers to pencil-pushers overnight. Ministerial bureaucracy policymaking rubber-stamped by LDP politicians is deeply embedded in Japan's political culture, and it remains to be seen how willing top bureaucrats in the Finance and Foreign Affairs ministries will be willing to cooperate with the 100 government-appointed watchdogs.

What's more (and probably worse from the bureaucracy's perspective), the Hatoyama government will form the so-called National Strategy Bureau, a body that will map out budgets as well as basic foreign and national security policies. The newly established Administrative Reform Council - reporting directly to the Prime Minister's office - will watch over wasteful spending and financial irregularities among central government bureaucrats.

Who's calling the shots?
Not necessarily Hatoyama, at least not alone in the DPJ. Analysts widely agree and DPJ lawmakers fear that controversial and outspoken political heavyweight and DPJ founder Ichiro Ozawa is back in the party front line after having been temporarily marginalized over a financial scandal earlier this year (a minor issue for a politician who has seen it all over his long career).

Ozawa is widely regarded as the architect of the DPJ's election triumph (he was, for example, the first one promising the public cash and subsidies without consulting with anybody) and he is very unlikely to leave running Japan up to Hatoyama alone.

Not least, as Ozawa has fought for more than 15 years to bring down the LDP (to which he belonged until 1992 acting among other positions as secretary general). In recent years, this has increasingly been on an ad hoc basis, seeking to block or at least slow LDP-initiated lawmaking and policymaking process using the Upper House majority the DPJ gained in 2007.

Among others, Ozawa is feared as a "shadow shogun" by many in his own party and is in turn being referred to as "dictator", "unpredictable" and a "manipulator", to name just a few of the attributes circulating within the party that are fit to print. Many DPJ lawmakers are reportedly concerned about a possible dual Ozawa-Hatoyama power structure, fearing this would result in inner-party conflicts and Ozawa-style backroom dealings.

They probably should be, given Ozawa's impressive track record of having it his way or no way in the DPJ. He is the "three-no man" in Japanese politics, as Takao Toshikawa, a Tokyo-based political analyst, put it in an interview with the Financial Times on Monday.

"Ozawa has a very deep philosophy of not doing three things: he does not consult, he does not explain and he does not try to persuade others," Toshikawa said, indicating that Hatoyama may be in for a rough ride controlling the inner-party loose cannon waiting to be rewarded for contributing to the DPJ's victory as chief election strategist.

Tellingly, promising Ozawa a "very important post" within his cabinet was one of the first things Hatoyama did say on Sunday evening, followed by Hatoyama's naming of Ozawa on Monday as chief election strategist for the Upper House (the second chamber of parliament - Diet) elections.

But Ozawa is not the only problem. Hatoyama has to manage his new ruling party with a Diet caucus dominated by many first-time members in the Lower House who essentially got there for not being the LDP candidate.

What's next?
A special parliament session will be called for the week beginning September 14 to elect Hatoyama as the next prime minister. The DPJ chief has announced that he will not nominate the members of his cabinet before then, giving him, Ozawa and other party heavyweights another two weeks to identify and nominate ministers, including a few from coalition partners.

The crushing victory for the one and the humiliating defeat for the other party in Sunday's vote was probably as much an expression of complete disenchantment with the LDP as an endorsement of the DPJ.

Judging by recent opinion polls, the Japanese public has turned from apathetic and apolitical to (more) interested in politics and decisively more impatient with messy and incompetent policymaking.

It could be that the Japanese voter was sicker and more tired of the LDP than they were looking forward to having the DPJ in charge.

Either way, the DPJ has probably made far too many expensive election promises, while from now on being confronted with a suspicious and demanding electorate ready to turn from enthusiastic to cranky when promises are broken.

Just like a "real" democracy, at last.

Dr Axel Berkofsky is Adjunct Professor at the University of Milan and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Milan-based Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI).