SAPPORO – I invited professor Gerry Stoker of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom to speak at a symposium in September on the theme of how to overcome people’s disenchantment with democratic political systems. He is far from alone. A number of British political scientists in recent years have published a series of books discussing the paradoxes of democratic political systems.
The paradoxes of democratic political systems can be roughly summarized as follows: Democracy spread across the globe after the collapse of one-party rule in the former Soviet bloc countries in the early 1990s. Democratization made headway in East Asia, Latin America and more recently in the Middle East. As if in inverse proportion to such progress, however, people in democratic nations are becoming increasingly disenchanted with politics and are drenched in a feeling of powerlessness.
When asked why British political scholars are paying attention to such a phenomenon, Stoker’s answer was that the scholars themselves became disenchanted after witnessing what eventually happened to the Labour administration that swept to power in 1997. I myself observed how Tony Blair took office with great fanfare when I was studying at Oxford University. That experience led me to make various proposals back home to turn the Democratic Party of Japan into a political force like New Labour and enable a change of government in Japan. After witnessing the final result of the DPJ-led change of government, I felt the same sentiment as Stoker and the other British academics.
In Japan’s case, the 2009 change of government was greeted with a sense of excitement so great that people’s disappointment with the ultimate outcome was all the more grave. In reality, the DPJ administration achieved some major policy turnarounds in the fields of social security and decentralization. It also paved the way for the possible eventual phaseout of nuclear power generation.
But despite such achievements the DPJ was labeled as a party lacking in governance capability —an accusation that overshadowed policy issues — and the DPJ government suffered a crushing defeat in last year’s Lower House election.
Moreover, the negative image of DPJ rule swept away any idealistic thinking among Japanese voters that they could change policies and create a better society by changing the political landscape.
What we’re seeing in Japan today appears to have gone well beyond disenchantment. A strange euphoria, in which people do not seem to care about the illnesses or contradictions in society, has swept the country.
A survey carried out by Asahi Shimbun in early October is most revealing. It showed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet has an approval rating of 56 percent, roughly unchanged from a month earlier. Fifty-three percent of those who approve of him stated that the biggest reason why is because they think his policies are good. Yet many of these poll respondents went on to disagree with a number of his specific policies.
For example, just 51 percent supported the prime minister’s decision to raise the consumption tax. And 56 percent opposed abolition of the special corporate tax to fund 3/11 reconstruction efforts — more than double the percentage of respondents who supported the abolishment. Only 21 percent believed that Abe’s policies to support businesses will help improve workers’ employment or wages, while 63 percent did not believe so.
As much as 76 percent did not believe in the prime minister’s statement that the situation at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is “under control.” When asked what impact Japan’s hosting of the 2020 summer Olympics would have on disaster reconstruction efforts, 46 percent said they believed that the reconstruction efforts would be put on the back burner — far more than the 37 percent who thought that the successful Olympic bid would add momentum to reconstruction.
According to the survey, people do not have any illusion that Abe’s business-oriented economic policies will benefit their own lives. They see through the words of government leaders and realize that the government remains helpless in coping with the aftermath of the nuclear mess. They know that they have to bear the burden of the consumption tax hike, which is coupled with cuts in corporate taxation, and yet support the Abe administration.
They know that the nation’s top leader is telling lies — irrespective of whether he is doing so intentionally or not. But this knowledge does not lead them to criticize the prime minister.
People think that Japan’s “national interests” lie somewhere not related to their own lives They are resigned to think that for the sake of such interests, they have no other choice but to shoulder an increased burden while big businesses receive more benefits. This is the logic under which they accept policies that bring them disadvantages yet voice their support for the Abe administration.
In a healthy democratic political system, an administration that has won the people’s mandate in an election carries out its promises and then the voters evaluate its achievements in deciding whether to vote or not to vote again for the administration. But this cycle has been broken in Japan. The current “euphoria” may last as long as the effects of “Abenomics” continue — or even until Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics.
At a time when most Japanese people feel powerless toward politics, the Abe administration is trying to pursue major policy turnarounds — changing the government’s interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense, pushing for a bill to protect government secrets that will lead to restriction of the freedom of the press, a full liberalization of agricultural trade under the Trans-Pacific Partnership scheme — things that previous LDP administrations could not achieve.
Even as there is no end in sight to the nuclear woes at the Fukushima plant, the Abe government is taking steps toward the restart of other idled nuclear power plants. These are all major issues that could influence the very fate of the nation — and should be hotly debated in the Diet and in the media. However, Japan’s political world and media remain eerily calm. This is extraordinary and abnormal.
The biggest crisis in Japan’s democracy today is that people have given up even imagining alternative ways of politics. Doing so does not require tens of thousands of people demonstrating on the street or taking part in massive rallies. Healthy political tension could develop if just one out of every four people who have expressed support for the Abe administration in opinion surveys start to say otherwise. But for that to happen, the opposition parties and the media need to make vigilant efforts to point out the problems in the Abe government.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University.