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Japan spinning its wheels

by Masahiro Matsumura

OSAKA — To lose one prime minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two in one year looks like carelessness. That paraphrase by Oscar Wilde aptly sums up the current state of Japanese politics, given the serial resignations of Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda.

Japan is once again saddled with a caretaker government as the ruling Liberal Democrat Party scrambles for a new leader ahead of elections for the Diet’s Lower House. The question is: Who or what has been careless? The LDP? The Constitution? The voters?

For the last two years, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition has dominated the powerful Lower House with a two-thirds majority. For a year, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and other mini-parties have controlled the Upper House, which can veto legislation. Political instability and gridlock have been the inevitable result. The problem is that another election won’t fix this political mess, but will likely only ensure continuing paralysis. Japan’s political system requires the same sort of structural reform that its economy has long needed. And, as with the economy, its politicians don’t appear ready to deliver anything that daring.

The LDP and the DPJ are now debating how to manage rising inflation at a time of falling living standards and deepening economic polarization within society — the latter a legacy of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s market-oriented reforms of 2001-2005. The debate is centered on whether to increase the consumption tax in order to sustain the country’s severely strained social security system. Only occasionally does the issue of administrative and governmental reform sneak to the center of policy debates.

The LDP has tried to placate public wrath about a series of political scandals and policy mistakes over the last two years, while the DPJ has attempted to capitalize on these. The LDP is now staging a party-leadership election in the hope of gaining a temporary boost in popular support before the Lower House election. The five contenders, all of whom served in Koizumi’s Cabinet, are actively debating major policy issues, but appear to be offering only more of the same because they lack Koizumi’s charisma and boldness.

The front-runner is Taro Aso, the LDP secretary general, who wants economic pump-priming. One of his major challengers is Yuriko Koike, Japan’s first female defense minister, who is committed to restarting Koizumi’s market-oriented reforms and has his backing. The other three have some charm and ability, but have offered nothing like a remedy to Japan’s deep structural problems, mostly because they all have not made tackling these problems their priority.

Given Japan’s huge accumulated national debts, the LDP can no longer appease the electorate through pork-barrel spending. In essence, Koizumi’s reforms effectively dismantled the LDP’s vote-getting machine, which relied on buying off vested interests.

One consequence of this is that most Japanese voters nowadays are swing voters with no party loyalty. The maverick Koizumi had the personal attractiveness and ideological appeal needed to galvanize a majority behind his plans for a “fair” distribution of the pain of reform. His charisma dissipated public resistance, as his battle cry — “Demolish the LDP” — seemed to promise that politicians would also pay a price for change.

Koizumi did, of course, revive Japan’s economy after a decade of stagnation. Yet even he did not touch the economy’s gargantuan quasi-governmental sector — the source of the most horrendous waste and misspending. The public blames the LDP’s inability to control the bureaucracy, if not its complicity with it. Yet the LDP’s position is not hopeless, because the public remains highly skeptical that the amateurish DPJ can control the bureaucracy, either.

So Japan’s choice comes down to one between a distrusted LDP and an incompetent DPJ. Given voters’ vacillation, neither the LDP nor the DPJ is likely to gain an absolute majority. Should the LDP win a simple majority, the new administration would still face a hung Diet, owing to the DPJ’s control of the Upper House. So any new LDP-led coalition government will be just as precarious as the last two pathetic administrations.

Conversely, should the DPJ gain a simple majority, its inexperienced government will immediately have to cope with the same intractable policy issues that the LDP failed to confront. Should the DPJ gain a plurality and forge a coalition with the country’s far-left parties, the outcome would be ceaseless instability.

The core of Japan’s political inertia lies in the current pseudo-two-party system comprising the LDP and the DPJ, because the parties’ divisions are actually devoid of any consistent ideological and policy differences. Both parties include conservatives and liberals, defense hawks and doves. The DPJ’s president, Ichiro Ozawa, who once served as an LDP secretary general, is exemplar of this confused legacy.

Sadly, the chances that the LDP will reform, or that the DPJ will evolve into a responsible party of government in the foreseeable future, are slim. Japan seems condemned to endure chronic and pointless political trench warfare until some crisis forces a realignment of political parties along ideological and policy lines.

Only when that happens will Japan be ready to play the responsible international leadership role that the world’s second-largest economy should play.

Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku), Osaka. © 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)