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The result of the election to choose a new president of the Liberal Democratic Party will be announced today. This will end a domestic political vacuum that has persisted since Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori revealed his intention of stepping down, over a month ago.

What we are witnessing is not a change of power between political parties, but a change of power between intraparty factions of the LDP. That is why no candidate is offering, for example, a basic strategy for regaining international confidence in Japan by restoring the soundness of the economy.

It is really unfortunate for the Japanese that an election to select the nation’s top leader is being conducted on the basis of factional considerations.

The Mori administration, which took office on April 5, 2000, is beleaguered on all sides, with its public-approval ratings at a record-low level. The economy is experiencing its first period of deflation since the end of World War II, as the government itself has acknowledged. Structural reform is going nowhere.

However, LDP moves with regard to the leadership contest, scheduled for April 24, are still motivated by factional interests. For all its talk of self-reform, the party is following the same old modus operandi: putting itself above the national interest, with its leading factions effectively controlling the party.

The LDP’s partners, New Komeito and the Conservative Party, both of which are determined to stay in power, also place top priority on keeping the coalition alive rather than meeting the political crisis with any initiative. In the absence of real political leadership, the nation is drifting, unable to move beyond the “lost decade” of the 1990s.

The behind-the-scenes leadership struggle over the past month indicates that the LDP is far removed from popular aspirations to open politics.

The largest faction, headed by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, is moving to put Hashimoto up for party president. But there remains a sort of disunity about this, as some younger members of the faction are not necessarily going along with the move.

Former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who heads the Mori faction, will drop his factional affiliation in order to run in the election. But it remains to be seen how much support he will be able to command.

Under the amended rules for the election, a total of 487 votes will be cast in the contest: 346 by LDP Diet members and the 141 that represents the total of the three votes allotted to each prefectural chapter of the LDP. Most prefectural chapters will hold preliminary polls, but there is no uniform rule governing such an election.

Factional calculations stand in the way of open party management. The problem is that each faction is trying, first and foremost, to protect its own interests. A transparent election is the minimum condition necessary to restore public confidence in the ruling party.

Mitsuru Uchida, a political scientist and professor emeritus at Waseda University, says setting election rules immediately before the vote is “not desirable for democracy.” The election, he contends, should be held according to the established rules, and any changes to the rules should be explained clearly to the people. Using rule changes for factional horse-trading is clearly undemocratic.

Uchida maintains that younger politicians in their mid-50s should take leadership positions. In the LDP’s case, there are men waiting in the wings to succeed the so-called YKK trio (Taku Yamasaki, Koichi Kato and Koizumi, each heading a faction). Among the possible successors are: Taro Aso, the minister for economic and fiscal policy; Masahiko Komura, the justice minister; and Takeo Hiranuma, the economy, trade and industry minister.

By Uchida’s standard, however, all three ministers are already too old — around 60. Moreover, they are not likely to be leading candidates for LDP president, partly because they belong to minor factions and partly because of the complicated situation in which their respective groups find themselves. Also in terms of leadership capacity they are largely an unknown quantity.

Uchida says the prime minister of Japan must have (1) an ability to communicate effectively with the rest of the world and (2) an ability to listen to a broad range of views and to give the people a sense of security. One wonders whether there is anyone in the LDP who meets these requirements.

Yukio Hatoyama, head of the Liberal Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, says that the past year, with Mori at the helm, has been a “lost year” for Japan. The Mori administration, he adds, has lost the confidence not only of the Japanese people but of the international community as well. Indeed, Mori and his party bear grave responsibility for the loss of public trust in politics. But it is also true that the DPJ has failed to win over people disillusioned with the LDP.

In recent years, Japanese voters have been leaving the major parties in droves. During the past six months alone, voters with no party affiliation have determined the outcome of gubernatorial elections in a number of key prefectures. In the March 25 election for Chiba governor, independent Akiko Domoto won a decisive victory over the candidates backed by the LDP and DPJ. In last year’s gubernatorial vote in Tochigi Prefecture, Akio Fukuda, the former mayor of a small city, defeated a four-term incumbent supported by six parties, including the LDP and DPJ. And in October’s poll in Nagano, the popular writer Yasuo Tanaka put an end to the revolving-door practice of electing an ex-deputy governor as governor — a “tradition” that had continued for 41 years in this conservative stronghold.

All these elections made clear voters’ growing alienation from the established parties. More significant is the fact that this nonpartisan trend is spreading from urban and suburban areas to rural districts. However, the DPJ has been unable to attract anti-LDP votes, indicating that the No. 1 opposition party is not yet popularly perceived as an effective alternative to the LDP.

It is often said that the LDP has come to the end of its “service life.” It may be that the party has exhausted its energy during the more than 45 years of factional fighting since the 1955 merger of two conservative parties.

Uchida points out that Britain’s Labor Party is “still very young” despite its 100-year history. The party, he notes, is vigorously pushing various reforms and developing many younger politicians of ability. Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Labor leader, is only 47 years old.

For the LDP to be born again, it must reform itself in an open and transparent manner and develop younger leaders by putting them in responsible positions. For that, the party must first have a competent leader capable of pushing internal reforms beyond the pale of factionalism. The question is whether the next LDP president will have that kind of ability.

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