Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s days are numbered. The latest popularity survey by one vernacular newspaper has found that public trust in his administration has plummeted to 9 percent. Not only the leader of a coalition party but also members of his Liberal Democratic Party are now speaking of the possibility that he will be forced to step down any time.
Indeed, the public no longer seems to have any reason to support the coalition government headed by Mr. Mori. The people are apparently fed up with the endless series of gaffes for which he must be held directly or indirectly responsible. He has failed to show any leadership in dealing with political scandals even if some of them are not of his own making.
His insensitive and lackluster response to the recent collision between a Japanese fisheries training boat and a U.S. nuclear submarine off Hawaii has deprived the public of its last remaining shred of tolerance for Mr. Mori. Now many Japanese, including politicians, seem to fear that with Mr. Mori at the helm Japan will sink. The sad fact, however, is that Japan’s current political realities do not offer any promising political leader as a replacement for him.
Nearly a decade after the LDP temporarily lost power in 1993, Japanese politics has remained mired in turmoil. Political leaders have been crying out for reform, but little has really changed. It seems that the nation has lost a sense of direction. While the nation drifted, the international situation has been changing rapidly. Despite the daunting problems confronting the world, it has been searching energetically for a new post-Cold War order. Yet politicians are reluctant to make the tough decisions they are supposed to make. They are falling far short of public expectations. When, the people wonder, will they be able to produce a road map for national revival?
One thing is certain: Unless politics change, and change drastically, Japan won’t be able to get out of the bind it is in. Not only that, the nation most likely will face more crises. Signs of change emerged, or so it seemed, last year. One was the debut of populist reformers in Nagano and Tochigi gubernatorial elections. Another was a foiled revolt in the ruling LDP. Although it flopped, the mutiny underscored the pressing need for political reform.
The so-called Kato rebellion, mounted by former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato, also played up the urgent necessity of developing a viable opposition party. It is imperative to build a more responsible political system. Establishing sound parliamentary democracy is one of the biggest challenges the nation faces at the outset of the 21st century.
During the Cold War, Japan had a two-party system of sorts, with the LDP pitted against the Japan Socialist Party. But there was no change of government, with the LDP holding onto power for almost three decades. The “1955 setup” — so called because it started that year — collapsed in 1993. The LDP, as well as the JSP, lost a general election, opening the way for a non-LDP coalition government. That marked the end of one-party rule and the beginning of coalition government.
The people thought a new kind of politics was in the offing. It was not to be. The scratch team of Mr. Morihiro Hosokawa broke up because of internal discords. With the LDP no longer what it was, the trend toward coalition politics survived. But the LDP, by far the largest party, returned to power quickly. What ensued, however, was more political instability, as parties met and parted. Politicians failed to produce a new vision for post-Cold War and post-bubble Japan. The difficult decisions to remake the nation were delayed or avoided. The 1990s turned out to be a “lost decade,” not a decade of recovery.
The LDP fell behind the times. Bureaucrat-led politics reached a dead end. The cozy ties that bound politicians, bureaucrats and businesses begot corruption. Money continued to talk. The party suffered at the polls, but it has managed to stay in power by changing the makeup of the ruling coalition. Power seems to have become an end in itself.
The opposition as it stands appears too weak to govern. Last year’s general election was an opportunity for a change of government. The LDP lost its majority but, together with New Komeito and the Conservative Party, assembled a working majority. The people do not trust the opposition, either. The Democratic Party of Japan, the leading opposition party, is divided. It has no game plan for replacing the LDP.
In this situation, the LDP’s traditional politics — defined by pork, the role of sheer numerical strength in deciding the fortune of intraparty factions, and the horse trading among those groups in selecting leaders — survives. Mr. Mori is the product of such politics. The system itself must be revamped.
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