Japan’s political landscape could change dramatically, depending on the outcome of July’s Upper House elections. Mikio Aoki, a Liberal Democratic leader in the Upper House, says the three ruling coalition parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — must win at least 64 seats between them to secure a majority.

The possibility of their losing their majority remains real, although the LDP last year rammed an electoral-reform package through the Diet to boost its chances of victory. If it loses the election, the LDP will probably try to assemble a majority by winning over independents and dissident opposition members. That will allow it to avert an immediate crisis and put off the day of reckoning. If it bungles, however, the Lower House could be dissolved for a snap general election.

Liberal Democrats no longer talk of winning a single-party majority in the Upper or the Lower House. The LDP share of the popular vote has continued to shrink since the 1994 electoral reforms, with unaffiliated voters now making up about 50 percent of the voter pool. Many of these nonaligned voters are coming around to the opposition parties.

The shift of political power away from the LDP has been anticipated ever since a new electoral system, one combining single-seat districts with proportional representation, was used in the 1996 Lower House elections. So the question is when, not whether, the LDP will fall from power.

The day of reckoning will be delayed if the LDP does fairly well in the coming elections or if the opposition Democratic Party of Japan remains weak. One thing is certain: The LDP cannot stay in power forever, given the single-seat electoral system.

It is also certain that the fall of an LDP-led administration will not lead to the rise of a socialist administration. The political situation today is fundamentally different from that of the Cold War era, when “conservatives” were pitted against “progressives,” with the nation’s political world polarized between the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party.

It is also wrong to label the ruling parties “conservative” and the opposition parties “progressive.” The trouble with the LDP is that it is unable to revamp the bureaucracy because it is the patron saint of bureaucratic politics.

The LDP’s latest program of administrative reform is not much different from what it has been saying for 15 years. It would be naive to think that this time around the program will succeed. Popular confidence in the LDP has declined perhaps because many people have come to know how the party and the bureaucracy work hand in glove.

Bureaucrats have held a grip on every part of our society and economy in subtle ways, such as through the use of “administrative guidance.” That is why the economy is rigid and sluggish and is still struggling to recover from a decade-long slump.

The “convoy system” for banks was the financial equivalent of socialism. It crumbled quickly in the face of global competition. Many sectors, not just banking, are under the thumb of bureaucrats. Some call this “Japanese-style socialism.”

The central-government bureaucracy runs 77 public corporations, 84 quasi-public corporations and 26,000 nonprofit organizations. No other democratic country has such a vast bureaucratic network of enterprises.

What’s more, the LDP plans to set up a postal service corporation in 2003 to expand bureaucratic stakes in the banking and insurance sectors. These plans, if carried out, will dampen private-sector activity and obstruct newcomers from entering the market. The LDP and the bureaucracy have yet to do any soul-searching over the mistakes they made running the country.

KSD, a small-business mutual-aid society at the center of a money scandal, illustrates once again the shady and lucrative ties that bind bureaucrats and politicians. Unless this collusive structure is dismantled, bureaucratic reform and deregulation will end as empty slogans. LDP politics is “money-for-favors” politics.

The opposition parties should realize that breaking this covert LDP-bureaucracy relationship, or stopping the politics of pork, is the way to reinvigorate Japan. They should attack the ruling parties on these down-to-earth issues. Ideology no longer divides political parties.

How will Japanese politics develop over the long haul? Part of the answer can be found in the recent history of Italian politics, which is similar to that in Japan in more ways than one.

In Italy, many political parties existed under an electoral system of multiseat districts combined with proportional representation until 1994, when a single-seat/PR system, similar to Japan’s current system, was introduced. The rightwing alliance won the elections held in 1994, but lost to the leftwing coalition in the next elections of 1996.

With the Cold War over, elections were fought over domestic issues such as deficit reduction, electoral reform (abolishing the PR section), administrative decentralization and methods for presidential election.

The current leftwing administration is headed by the Democratic Party of the Left, the former Communist Party, which scrapped its Leninist centralized-control system 10 years ago. The Japanese Communist Party, though essentially different from the DPL, may also change.

Japan’s political world has been slow to change despite the fact that the nation adopted the same single-seat/PR system that Italy did. In my view, the reason is that the PR share of representation is much larger in Japan (37 percent) than in Italy (25 percent).

However, since the single-seat system is here to stay, Japanese politics will over time also polarize between two major groups. There are already signs of this happening, with the LDP and New Komeito on one side, and the DPJ and the Liberal Party on the other.

Italy’s 1996 elections were held amid cries for clean politics. As a result, half the seats at stake went to new candidates, possessors of “clean hands.” The Christian Democratic Party, which had ruled the country for half a century, lost all its seats. The LDP could follow the same path unless it gets its act together.

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