Few voters in Japan — or lawmakers for that matter — ever took a serious look at political party election pledges, knowing they were simply vague policy slogans with little substance.

Parties routinely pledge to turn the economy around but then never elaborate on just how they would do it.

However, as campaigning for the Nov. 9 House of Representatives election kicked off Tuesday, both voters and parties appear far more serious this time around.

Voters discouraged by hollow rhetoric, broken promises and more than a decade of economic malaise are now demanding that parties present specific goals, explain how they will be achieved, and when it will happen.

This pressure has prompted parties to come up with clear action agendas, which they have all decided to couch in the term “manifesto.” The coming poll has thus been dubbed the “manifesto election.”

Political nomenclature aside, this campaign may be the first time the policy pledges of the opposition camp get some serious attention.

This owes in great part to the Democratic Party of Japan’s image as the first opposition party that is actually trying to unseat the Liberal Democratic Party via a general election instead of a political realignment.

“I looked at the previous election pledges of the LDP,” DPJ President Naoto Kan said. “They were carefully written to be vague and abstract, so that no one can be sure if the pledges were actually met after the election.”

All too often, the world of Japanese politics and elections has been characterized by power struggles or personal relationships between candidates and voters. Thus most observers welcome the so-called manifesto movement as a first step toward more policy-oriented debate.

But while parties may have wrapped their campaign pledges in fancy paper, they are still avoiding important issues that voters may find to be bitter pills to swallow — particularly the inevitable tax hikes that will be necessary to achieve the pledged goals.

Thus pundits say the new tack taken by the parties may end up being merely an experiment — both for the parties and voters.

Take the contentious moves to reform the public pension system and to hike the unpopular consumption tax — both actions are widely expected in an effort to provide support to Japan’s rapidly aging society.

Under the revised National Pension Law enacted in 2000, the government must secure stable financing and raise its burden of maintaining the public pension program from its current one-third share to 50 percent by fiscal 2004. This will translate into a cost of 2.7 trillion yen.

In its election campaign manifesto, the LDP did not present any specific revenue source for the planned burden hike. It only vowed to hammer out a reform plan “by the end of the year.”

“Why doesn’t the LDP clarify its pension reform plans before the Lower House election?” DPJ chief Kan asked during a TV debate Monday.

Takenori Kanzaki, head of New Komeito, a member of the LDP-led ruling coalition, countered, “The DPJ’s reform plan fails to clearly show benefits and premiums.”

True, the DPJ did not clarify how high the premiums would be for people to achieve its planned pension system reforms, which would merge the existing separate pension systems for salaried workers, self-employed workers and public servants into one.

The DPJ, which has demanded a cutback in wasteful spending to help cover the planned premium hike, claimed the health ministry failed to disclose enough information to allow a proper assessment.

For its part, the Japanese Communist Party staunchly opposes any hike in the consumption tax. Instead, it is calling for drastic cuts in defense and public works spending to cover growing social security costs.

Meanwhile, Takako Doi, leader of the Social Democratic Party, has been cool toward the whole manifesto hoopla. She has warned such agendas could become mere pies in the sky because the current reality is that parties must first form a coalition government, and that means compromising on policies.

Indeed, the ruling bloc heading into the election campaign — the LDP, New Komeito and New Conservative Party — avoided pledging specifics on pension reforms, or a re-evaluation and changes to the Fundamental Law of Education, or amendments to the Constitution to make the document less pacifist.

In the meantime, opposition parties are split over important issues, particularly national security and the Constitution, especially the war-renouncing Article 9.

Both the JCP and SDP boast pacifist platforms and want the Constitution to remain as is.

The DPJ advocates a more active security policy, pledging to build up Japan’s defense capability “without delay” and urging “creative discussion” on amending the Constitution.

JCP executive committee chief Kazuo Shii, when asked if his party would consider joining in a coalition with other opposition forces, particularly the DPJ, said: “It’s too early to ask that question. We first have to deal with the election.”

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