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Japan Elections Set for August 30: Ruling Party’s Half-Century Reign at Stake

August 19, 2009

As Japan nears its August 30 election, a mixture of political weariness and anticipation fills the air. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), under the leadership of Prime Minister Taro Aso, is deeply unpopular and trails badly in pre-election polls; its nearly-uninterrupted 54-year reign seems to be in its final days. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Yukio Hatoyama, stands poised to win a plurality in the lower house of Japan’s Diet, giving it license to form a new government. A combination of bleak economic conditions and even bleaker political mismanagement has led to this seemingly foregone conclusion. But change doesn’t come easily in Japan. Even if the LDP is ousted on August 30, the political structures and culture that have sustained its lengthy reign will not disappear overnight.

While tiny glimmers of good news began to appear just this week, Japan has been hit very hard by the global economic downtown. Its economy shrank by more than eight percent in the past year, and its rapidly aging population makes long-term recovery and growth particularly challenging prospects. Unsurprisingly, the focus of the election is domestic and economic policy. The party manifestos of the LDP and the DPJ are similarly tinged by economic populism, and although they differ on some specifics, both parties broadly pledge to grow household income, increase employment, and cut taxes.

What’s remarkable, however, is the relative lack of ideological differentiation between the LDP and the DPJ. This is not by accident. Indeed, ideology is not even the main battleground in the election. It is instead primarily a fight over Japan’s administrative structure and the political culture that has sustained it. Although Japan is nominally a multi-party democracy, the sheer pervasiveness and perseverance of the LDP has seemed to suggest otherwise. Aside from a few months in 1993, the LDP has governed Japan uninterrupted since 1955. It secured power in the immediate post-war period through a combination of strong support for the Cold War alliance with the United States and a clear emphasis on export-driven growth.

Since then, the LDP has maintained its dominance with an interdependent web of relationships between big businesses, powerful bureaucracies, and dynastic politicians. This web has proven remarkably resilient, as money, influence, and careers circulate through it with ease. But this powerful system also obscures the lines of political accountability. Political change comes not from open competition among rival parties, but from opaque bureaucratic decree and from factional maneuverings within the LDP. Power – both wielding it and keeping it – has become the driving motivation for the party. This situation is prone to corruption and inefficiency, and it often deprives Japanese voters of a meaningful political choice.

For decades, the combination of a growing economy, low unemployment, and a steady alliance with the United States seemed to justify LDP rule. But as the party grew comfortable in its power and success, it increasingly fell victim to corruption and controversy. A series of scandals in the 1980s were navigated with savvy leadership changes, cabinet shuffles, and coalition building. Economic stagnation and the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, however, posed real threats to the LDP, as the growth and stability that had justified its leadership and fractured its political opposition began to wane.

Instead of succumbing to an outside rival, the LDP elevated Junichiro Koizumi to the premiership in 2001. Koizumi led a reform-minded faction within the party that advocated a more assertive foreign policy and the privatization of large state-operated enterprises. Koizumi waged an internal campaign to purge the LDP of his opponents, and he appealed to voters directly to help him in the effort. In 2005, Koizumi led the party to one of its largest-ever electoral victories. But since Koizumi stepped down in 2006, a succession of short-lived and increasingly unpopular LDP prime ministers have followed. Taro Aso has become known for his erratic and detached behavior, and approval ratings for his cabinet hover around 20 percent.

Poised for victory, the DPJ has not advocated radical policies; overthrowing the dominant political party and proving its own, untested ability to govern are challenges enough. The change it does promote, however, cuts to the heart of the LDP’s hold on power. The DPJ pledges to curtail the influence of bureaucrats and promote a “politician-led” government in which the real policymakers are accountable to voters, not entrenched in ministries. Budgeting authority and the responsibility for policy planning and execution will be centralized in the cabinet, while more funds will be placed under local governments’ control. Politicians will be placed deeper within ministries to enforce discipline and ensure accountability among bureaucrats. For the DPJ, these reforms are the prerequisites for real policy change and for a politics that “values people above concrete projects.”

The DPJ certainly has identified the major structural features that have sustained the LDP’s longevity and impeded accountable policymaking. And if the polls are a reliable guide, many Japanese agree with the diagnosis. But even if the DPJ wins a historic victory on August 30, it is unclear how its reforms will fare. The entrenched bureaucracy that the DPJ has marked as its enemy is entrenched for a reason. As an entity, it sees itself as indispensible, in part because it is. Together with LDP politicians and business leaders, the bureaucracy has created and sustained an administrative system in which it is an essential component. The bureaucracy defends its prerogatives well, and it has outlasted scores of crusading politicians. A change in governing party alone may not be enough to dislodge its influence.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the DPJ’s agenda is that of co-optation. The challenges facing Japan are urgent and real. In the current economic climate, the desire for policy change may outweigh the need for structural reform. The resilient system that has fueled the LDP’s longevity may survive by adapting to serve new times and new political masters, and the impulse for reform may gradually wane. If the DPJ is victorious on August 30, it may find it easier to compromise with the current system than to force it to change.

Daniel Widome is a Junior Associate at The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at dwidome@asiafound.org.

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