Can Japan’s politics change people’s despair to hope?

by Shinji Fukukawa

The outcome of the July 11 Upper House election symbolized voters’ distrust of national politics in Japan. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan took only 44 of the 121 contested seats against its pre-election share of 54 seats due for contention and the DPJ-led coalition lost a majority in the 242-seat chamber by a large margin.

The resultant divided Diet situation with the opposition parties in control of the Upper House and the DPJ dominating the House of Representatives will undoubtedly make it more difficult for the Kan administration to make important policy decisions in the months to come.

The DPJ ousted the Liberal Democratic Party from power by a crushing victory in the Lower House election of last August and launched a DPJ-led coalition government with Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister the next month. The Hatoyama Cabinet initially enjoyed an approval rate of more than 70 percent.

But its approval rating fell sharply to about 20 percent in May in the wake of the alleged political funds scandals involving Hatoyama and DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, as well as the bungled handling of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.

After the two DPJ leaders resigned in June, Naoto Kan took over as prime minister and his Cabinet’s approval rating once exceeded 60 percent. Around that time, the DPJ was seen likely to secure a majority of the seats up for grabs in the Upper House poll. But after the election campaigning got under way, the DPJ’s popular support began to plunge.

Kan believed that his suggestion of a consumption tax increase was the main cause of his party’s election setback and stated in effect that voters must have taken his remark as “abrupt.” But recent opinion polls have shown that people generally consider a consumption tax increase to be unavoidable. So the true cause of the DPJ’s defeat appears to be more deeply rooted.

My view is that Kan and the DPJ’s skills in policymaking and governance have fallen woefully short of people’s expectations. Their vacillating stances on the proposed consumption tax raise — for example, proposing exemption for low-income earners in reaction to objections raised against the tax raise — gave people the impression that their preparations were inadequate.

The Kan Cabinet proposed a policy of ensuring a “strong economy, strong finances and strong social security,” but failed to convincingly explain why it thinks that it is possible to attain the three goals simultaneously, despite a prevailing view that it would be difficult to do so. At the advanced economies’ summit in Canada, Kan boastfully maintained that his government could realize tax increases and economic growth simultaneously but his logic and method remain unknown.

Many of the projects promised in the DPJ’s manifesto for last year’s Lower House election turned out to be unfeasible in the 10 months since the party came to power and even the implemented plans did not achieve their desired effects. Having witnessed these failures, many voters must have believed that it will be difficult for Kan to overcome his difficulties and exercise stronger, more positive leadership.

Meanwhile, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which had just 38 seats up for re-election, won a whopping 51 seats. But while the LDP increased its seats in single-seat constituencies, it won one less seat in the nationwide proportional representation sector than it did in the previous election and the party was unable to catch up with the DPJ in vote counts in both electoral districts and proportional representation. This means that the LDP has not reached a stage in which it can claim that it has fully recovered from its defeat in the Lower House election and regained people’s trust. And in terms of policymaking the LDP has failed to present a long-term grand design for Japan’s revival.

The Upper House election of this time was, so to speak, a contest with no winners, and as such, has accelerated people’s distrust of national politics. Japan is now faced with major problems such as how to get its economic-growth policies on track, how to restore mutual trust in Japan-U.S. relations and how to overhaul its dilapidated financial structure, which is in worse shape than those of the other advanced economies. Anxiety over the future of Japan is now spreading among the people.

The question is whether Japan’s national politics is capable of changing people’s despair into hope for the future. Or will people be pushed further into an abyss of despair? Japanese politics are at a critical point.

A glance at major elections in recent years shows that a “divided Diet” is not rare. The question is how to tide over difficulties in such a way as to help facilitate the nation’s political evolution. A grand coalition of political parties is one option but its feasibility is apparently scant at present. So, those involved in this country’s national politics should join hands to get two things done:

First, they must develop a political environment in which constructive talks can take place between the ruling and opposition parties regarding the preparation of the national budget. The decision by the Lower House about the national budget has precedence over the Upper House’s decision. But under the current circumstances, some or many of the budget-related bills may be blocked at the Upper House. So the government needs to carry out discussions in a sincere manner with the opposition parties, and the opposition needs to endeavor to compromise for the sake of national interests.

Second, they must search for ways to realize a “partial coalition.” This method was proposed by the LDP’s Ohira Cabinet in the mid-1970s as a way to obtain a policy accord at a time when the parliamentary strengths of the conservative and progressive camps were close, and this idea is taking on a realistic tinge in the current political situation. It is desirable for the ruling and opposition parties to form consensus over major issues that are drawing a keen attention from the public and require durable and stabile operational frameworks, such as the raising of the consumption tax and reform of the social security system.

To implement these measures, it is important for both the ruling and opposition parties to have key players capable of leading crucial negotiations. Such politicians should be blessed with excellent foresight, ample modesty and sufficient persuasive power. People are anxiously awaiting the appearance of such high-caliber politicians.

Shinji Fukukawa, former vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is now chairman of the Machine Industry Memorial Foundation.