Decline of the Liberal Democratic Party?

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Sixty-two years after Japan surrendered to the United States at the end of World War II, many things have changed, but not Japan’s subordination to the U.S. Despite having the world’s second-biggest economy, Japan is still a pygmy on the international stage, and its foreign policy is still unswerving devotion to an alliance that was imposed on the country half a century ago by the American occupation forces.

It is the deeply conflicted views of the Japanese about this foreign policy that have brought down Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after less than a year in office. His Liberal Democratic Party still has a majority in the Diet’s Lower House and will choose a successor from its own ranks Sunday, but this may mark the end of the LDP’s half-century monopoly on power.

In his resignation speech, Abe explained that he was quitting “to pave the way for ruling and opposition parties to work together to approve Tokyo’s naval mission in support of the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan.”

This mission, which ends Nov. 1 unless the Diet renews it, is one of the ways that the LDP slides past the prohibitions of the “peace” Constitution and deploys Japan’s armed forces abroad. It’s a pretty modest deployment, as it only involves Japanese destroyers and tankers refueling U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean that are supporting the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Even with Abe gone, the Diet will not renew the mission. Six weeks ago the LDP lost control of the Upper House, and the opposition parties oppose an extension. The LDP-controlled Lower House can override the upper, but that could trigger an early election of the Lower House (currently due in 2009). The LDP could easily lose that election, given the Japanese public’s present mood, and then it would lose control of the government.

So the LDP will probably let the “antiterrorist” mission in the Indian Ocean end after next month. It has bigger problems to contend with, starting with the paucity of credible candidates to replace Abe as prime minister.

One candidate, LDP secretary general Taro Aso, is scarcely house-broken. As foreign minister, he observed that American diplomats would never solve the problems of the Middle East because they had blue eyes and blond hair. As economics minister, he said he wanted to make Japan a country where rich Jews would want to live. His favorite conversational topic is manga.

The main claim to fame of Aso’s principal rival, Yasuo Fukuda, 71, is that his father, Takeo Fukuda, was prime minister. That is an example of the LDP’s greatest problem: political in-breeding at the top, and the consequent shallowness of its pool of talent. The outgoing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is the grandson of a former prime minister; Junichiro Koizumi, the man whom Abe replaced only 10 months ago, began his political career as Takeo Fukuda’s secretary.

Since the beginning of this decade, moreover, the LDP has fallen into the hands of a narrow group of politicians whose goal is to roll back the changes introduced in Japan during the American occupation. They want to promote nationalism in the schools — to “rescue young people who have no dreams,” as Abe put it — and to change the pacifist constitution that forbids Japan to send troops abroad.

This hard-right faction within the LDP routinely denies the worst aspects of Japan’s behavior overseas during World War II, and its members exaggerate the threats that Japan faces from North Korea and China. (Abe’s specialty was the North Korean threat.) Above all, they seek to build up the armed forces and thus turn Japan into a “normal” country.

Some of this plays well with the Japanese public, but the slavish loyalty that the LDP hawks display toward the American alliance does not. It is strangely at odds with the nationalist tone of their rhetoric, and it leads them into actions that alienate the public.

One recent example was Abe’s attempt to force Okinawa to accept the construction of a new military complex for U.S. forces. As a result, the LDP was heavily defeated in Okinawa in the July elections for the Upper House.

The blatant corruption and incompetence of some of Abe’s Cabinet ministers played a big role in his downfall — within the space of 10 months, four ministers were forced to resign by scandals and a fifth committed suicide — but the coup de grace was Abe’s inability to get the Upper House to approve continued naval cooperation with U.S. forces in the Indian Ocean. If the LDP does not choose a more dovish prime minister next time, it may go into electoral free fall.

In the past, the LDP has always managed to bounce back after political setbacks, but the rise of the rightwing hawks in the party may change that pattern. Moreover, the perennially unsuccessful leftwing parties are no longer the only alternative. The Democratic Party of Japan, a centrist grouping created 10 years ago by dissident LDP members and various independents, has become the second-largest party and a plausible alternative government

The drift toward a rearmed Japan with a much more assertive foreign policy has seemed unstoppable in recent years, but the LDP hawks may have over-reached themselves. The LDP may even end up spending some years in opposition, which would do it a world of good.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.