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A nagging Japanese riddle: Who’s ‘left’ and who’s ‘right’?

by Takamitsu Sawa

In the Dec. 16 Lower House election, the Liberal Democratic Party won a resounding victory while the Democratic Party of Japan suffered a crushing defeat, bringing about a change of government after three years and three months of DPJ rule.

Expectations were that the election campaign would center on policy issues such as whether the consumption tax rate should be raised, whether Japan should join the talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, and whether and how Japan should end its reliance on nuclear energy as a key source of electricity.

In reality, none of these issues were decisive in the election outcome, because there were no clear-cut differences in the positions taken by the two major parties.

Clearly nuclear power did not become a major campaign issue. It has long been said that it is hard to fight a national election on the environment and energy agenda. That appears to have been proved true again.

Although all parties other than the LDP pledged — albeit to varying degrees — to do away with nuclear power generation, the election outcome suggests that a large portion of unaffiliated voters who support an end to nuclear power voted for the LDP.

In contrast, Nihon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan), whose sole agenda was to abolish nuclear power, lost many of its pre-election seats.

As has been shown in Britain, a change of government is nothing uncommon when a nation has a single-seat constituency system. The party in power draws up national policies, but no policy can possibly satisfy all citizens, corporations or organizations. This creates a sense of victimization among some segments of the electorate, who then take revenge on the governing party in the next election.

A party in the opposition camp only has to either attack the ruling party or remain silent on policy matters. A head wind against the ruling party serves as a tail wind for the opposition, which stands to gain under a single-seat constituency system.

A typical example of this is found in the debate over the consumption tax hike, which was one of the major points of contention in the latest election. After the DPJ won a landslide victory in the 2009 Lower House election, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama vowed not to raise the consumption tax rate “during the next four years.” Less than a year later, however, Naoto Kan, who took over from Hatoyama as prime minister, effectively put a consumption tax hike on the DPJ agenda for the July 2010 Upper House election, and incurred deep voter distrust.

Although the tax hike proposal may not have been entirely to blame, the DPJ saw the 54 seats it had going into the election dwindle to 44. Afterward, it had to deal with a divided Diet as its ability to implement policy was crippled.

In the 2009 Lower House election, the DPJ came up with a clearly liberal manifesto, choosing to highlight how it differed from the LDP. Although there were doubts about the feasibility of some campaign pledges, the DPJ deserved credit for demonstrating its liberal orientation.

What proved unfortunate for Hatoyama, an idealist, was having to face the insoluble question of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.

After succeeding Hatoyama, Kan vowed to follow realistic policies as an avowed disciple of Yonosuke Nagai, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology who, along with professor Masataka Kosaka of Kyoto University, was a reputed champion of realism at one time.

It is difficult to believe that Kan, a left-leaning civic activist while attending Nagai’s university classes in international politics, was then known as a rightwinger in relative terms. Be that as it may, every word and deed of Kan as prime minister befitted his claim that he was a realist.

Yoshihiko Noda, who succeeded Kan, was even more of a realist. He staked his political career on raising the consumption tax rate and, indeed, won the consent of the LDP and Komeito for the hike.

Noda also nationalized the Senkaku Islands; neglected the task of implementing the DPJ’s 2009 manifesto; shelved the DPJ pledge to shift decision-making power from bureaucrats to elected politicians; let bureaucrats, especially those of the Finance Ministry, take the initiative in drafting and implementing important policies; and paid no attention to the global warming issue.

All in all, Noda pursued such a conservative policy line that even Hatoyama criticized the prime minister for acting like a leader of “the Noda faction of the LDP.”

Shinzo Abe, who returned to the helm of the government following the December election, represents the rightwing element within the LDP in policy matters with his calls for revising the Constitution, reorganizing the Self-Defense Forces into a national defense force and reforming the education system.

Stressing these policies, however, is not what won him voter support. Instead, he placed emphasis on reviving the nation’s economy and ending deflation.

Abe seems to follow a path of perverted conservatism as he seeks economic resuscitation through classical Keynesian policies. He calls for unlimited quantitative monetary easing by the Bank of Japan, a supplementary budget to the tune of more than ¥10 trillion, and more spending on public works in the name of anti-disaster efforts — policies that would be abhorred by his “conservative” European and American counterparts.

I had expected, perhaps wishfully, that Japan would enter an age of two major political parties — the conservative LDP versus the liberal DPJ — competing with each other under the single-seat constituency system. But Noda repainted the DPJ’s liberal agenda —reflected in its 2009 manifesto — with a conservative brush, while Abe put “big government’s” touch on LDP conservative policies that had come to the fore under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

As a result, it has become all but impossible to distinguish the basic policy lines followed by the two parties. Differences between the LDP and DPJ have been blurred by Abe and Noda.

Another unexpected result of the latest Lower House election is the emergence of a number of minor political groups despite the single-seat constituency system.

Regretfully I was wrong to anticipate an age of two major political parties, one conservative and the other liberal.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.