Japanese politics in 2000 was marked by two major milestones. One is the inauguration of the administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori following the late Keizo Obuchi’s resignation due to sudden illness. The other is the July 25 Lower House election in which the governing Liberal Democratic Party suffered a severe setback.
Mr. Mori took office amid public criticism over the behind-the-scenes succession process. The “legitimacy” question, combined with a series of verbal gaffes by the prime minister, such as Japan being a “nation of gods with the Emperor at its center,” cast a long shadow over the election.
As it turned out, the LDP’s strength in the influential Lower House dropped sharply from 271 to 233, short of the majority of 241 — although the number of Lower House seats had been reduced by 20. The party was hit hardest in single-seat districts in Tokyo, where a number of former Cabinet ministers lost their long-held seats. The voter backlash against the LDP was evident not only in the main urban centers but in key cities across the country, too.
By contrast, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan increased its strength dramatically from 95 to 127. But the result, while encouraging, fell far short of the number needed to put together an anti-LDP coalition. The DPJ was popular in large cities, but was unable to attract voters in rural areas, the LDP’s traditional stronghold. In effect, then, the election produced no winners.
The LDP’s setback put Mr. Mori in a tight spot, as members of his own party called for his resignation. But they did not prevail, not only because there was no political force that could replace the tripartite coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party, but also because the LDP had no immediate candidate to succeed Mr. Mori.
Having cleared those two hurdles, the three-party alliance changed its spots, and power became an end in itself. As a result, coalition politics became rigid, leading to dubious political deals aimed chiefly at maintaining the reins of government. That increased public cynicism toward the triumvirate, creating a feeling that Japanese politics — and even Japanese society as a whole — was at a dead end.
In these circumstances, it was only natural that former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato’s open challenge to Prime Minister Mori received public support. Presumably the reform-minded Kato, then leader of the second-largest LDP faction, wanted to dissolve the tripartite coalition in order to break the paralysis and inject fresh air into national politics. But his rebellion fizzled out, partly because of tactical mistakes and partly because of strong objections from the leadership faction within the LDP.
If the Kato group lacked clout, so it was with the DPJ, the top opposition party. Weakened by internal schisms stemming from differences over key issues, the DPJ proved unable to mount a meaningful offensive against the ruling alliance. The policy discord came to a head when Mr. Takahiro Yokomichi, the deputy party leader, demanded the resignation of leader Mr. Yukio Hatoyama, an advocate of constitutional revision.
The irony is that the divided opposition helped to strengthen the hand of Mr. Mori despite his steadily falling popularity, creating a false sense of political stability. Political pundits quipped that the Mori administration had “no enemies.” But the underlying perception of a nation adrift persisted, giving rise to the view that the prime minister should be elected by a popular ballot.
While stagnation in national politics continued, signs of change emerged at the local level. In the Nagano gubernatorial election, for example, Mr. Yasuo Tanaka, a popular writer, scored a dramatic victory over a candidate backed by vested interests. In Tokyo, Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a former LDP stalwart, has taken bold policy initiatives, sometimes in defiance of the central government.
Japan has failed to send a clear-cut message not only to its own people but also to the rest of the world. Its role in the Korean peace process has left much to be desired. The G8 summit in Okinawa, which Japan hosted, ended on a lackluster note, except for a commitment to close the “digital divide.” In a way, the stock market’s fall in the closing days of 2000 was a thumbs-down on the sorry state of Japanese politics.
All in all, Japanese politics in 2000 has suffered severely from a dearth of public trust because politicians have been unable, if not unwilling, to draw up a credible blueprint for the future. The immediate task for political leaders is to fill the wide gap in perception between the public and politicians about the current sorry state of politics.
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