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The best-kept secret in Japanese politics is that policies don’t matter

by Jochen Legewie

Special To The Japan Times

Political parties in Japan are busy preparing for the Dec. 16 Lower House election. Each day, voters face new or newly merged parties, most of them determined to become part of the “third political force” or “third pole” forming to challenge the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and its two rivals — the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and Buddhist-backed New Komeito.

As the political landscape morphs, voters are facing a multitude of new policy platforms and pledges. Is this a good sign for democracy and long-term policymaking in Japan? Or are we just witnessing another round of traditional pork-barrel politics? Unfortunately, the latter seems to be the case.

Three years ago, expectations for fundamental change were running high after a historic shift in power from the LDP to the DPJ. The DPJ campaigned on and prevailed with a manifesto studded with high-profile pledges that included child-rearing allowances and toll-free expressways, but also a far-reaching promise to take back power from the vaunted bureaucracy.

But the DPJ not only failed to deliver on most of its pledges, it also came close to falling apart over basic policies, especially the consumption tax.

After the defection of Ichiro Ozawa and his followers, the party lost more and more members over this issue, followed by nuclear power and the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

Each day, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had more to fight about with the rebels in his party than with the opposition. This lack of internal consensus turned out to be the crux of the DPJ’s undoing.

Unfortunately, it also is the crux of Japanese politics. No wonder the country has gone through six prime ministers in the past six years. There is no chance of forming a stable government if the parties involved can’t agree on what they stand for.

Just look at the attempts being made to build a third political force by arguably two of the most charismatic leaders Japan has these days: Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

On Nov. 17, just four days after cofounding the Sunrise Party, Ishihara agreed to merge with Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) despite fundamental differences in philosophy.

Hashimoto originally favored eliminating nuclear power and had taken a very positive stance on entering the TPP talks. Both issues were watered down Thursday to accommodate Ishihara, the new party’s leader. As a result 38 percent of voters disapprove of this merger, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey published Nov. 27.

Beforehand, the Yomiuri Shimbun even quoted a senior member of Ishihara’s Sunrise Party as bluntly stating that “Unification of third-force parties should be prioritized, while putting aside policy differences for now.”

A similar scenario awaits Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada’s newly formed Nippon Mirai no To (Japan Future Party), which has just pulled in Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First), headed by former DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, and the group that has coalesced around Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura and former farm minister Masahiko Yamada.

Nippon Mirai is loosely built around opposition to nuclear energy and tax hikes but otherwise lacks unifying fundamental beliefs. In addition, Kada is said to be extremely wary of the strong-willed Ozawa. Hence it is difficult to anticipate her party having a clear direction to go in beyond election day.

All of this leaves the LDP as the frontrunner in the polls and in consistency of program — but only at first sight.

LDP leader Shinzo Abe has built a platform that is clearly conservative, growth-focused and boldly nationalist on security and education. His policies lean strongly to the right and will likely cause concern at New Komeito, its longtime coalition partner. This is only natural in a coalition government and will have to be dealt with should they again end up on the winning side.

More troubling in a fundamental sense is the fact that, even within the LDP, there is no clear stance on the TPP and nuclear issues. The LDP is actually split on the April 2014 tax hike but managed to cobble together a tentative agreement. If the Japanese economy is still in bad shape in September 2013, a tax increase under the LDP is far from assured.

Again, Japan’s no-decision, no follow-through politics is feeding off the basic lack of policy direction pervading each party. The DPJ is well aware of this and has asked each member to sign and submit an application to run on the party’s ticket. This “written oath” requires that each member support the DPJ manifesto. As internal differences over the TPP came to the fore, however, the party again managed at the last minute to avoid clarifying its stance on this crucial topic.

There is no real revival in the cards for Japan unless the major parties can determine what they stand for. Without this, any statesmanship or public debate will represent nothing more than shadow boxing for Diet seats. The political and economic implications are obvious: Japan’s ability to conduct fundamental long-term policymaking will decline further and its muddle-through ways will continue to be the norm.

Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K. (See his blog at www.cncblogs.jp).