The upset result of the November presidential election in the United States was followed by the announcement by French President Francois Hollande that he would not seek re-election next year and the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi over the rejection of his proposed constitutional amendment in a national referendum. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye was suspended from power following a parliamentary vote of impeachment. It almost seems like a worldwide chain reaction of disruption to those in power in advanced democracies.
In the U.S. and Europe, emerging political forces have been rising from outside the regime of established political parties, and governments are cracking under pressure of anti-establishment public discontent.
In my opinion, the recent series of political developments signifies a collapse of the center-left politics pursued in Western Europe over the past quarter century and the New Democrat movement in the U.S.
After Thatcherism or neo-liberalism brought about the rise of financial capitalism at the expense of job security and social equality since the 1980s, former left-wing political forces proposed a “third way” — or social democracy that can coexist with the market mechanism — by seeking equality and continuation of public services while embracing globalization of the economy.
But while center-left governments took power in some countries beginning in the late 1990s, they were unable to achieve much in fighting deteriorating employment conditions and the problem of poverty. After the Lehman shock of 2008, Western governments turned to austerity policies in response to their fiscal crises, and center-left political parties were unable to present other options.
Disillusionment with the center-left did not simply send anti-establishment voters back to the conservative wing but dispersed them to populist forces in either the left or right of the political spectrum. The problem with those forces is that they only carry slogans in the negative form — and it’s entirely unclear what they would seek to achieve if they take power. There are ominous signs that they might target their attacks on the basic rules of civil society and democracy that so far have been shared by both the conservatives and the left. In that respect, 2016 was a year of the plight of democratic politics — or the beginning of its collapse.
In Japan, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demonstrates a rare stability among advanced nations. That, I believe, is because this administration is to a large extent riding on the wave of anti-establishment politics. In my previous column, I criticized what I named the phenomenon of “Abe-ization.” That is an anti-establishment politics in the Japanese context.
In other words, Abe’s politics have overturned the balance in domestic politics, pursuit of logic or consideration toward Japan’s Asian neighbors that used to be shared across the conservative to left-wing political forces, and seek to destroy the consensus of postwar politics.
A part of the public who lives through the dark days of protracted economic doldrums and declining national power find temporary salvation and hope in such destruction. They do not care if Abe’s various policy proposals or diplomatic initiatives are bearing fruit. They support this administration because it is constantly on the move. People follow the Abe administration as long as the prime minister says his policies — either economic revitalization or efforts to resolve the territorial row with Russia — are still halfway to the goal.
The troubling question is where the popular discontent will be led when the policy ammunition of the Abe administration is exhausted, though we don’t know when that will happen. Will the nation dive into populist politics that seek to endlessly offer circuses without bread, so to speak, or succeed in establishing a healthy cycle of changes in government? Japan’s politics will likely come to a crucial crossroads in the 2020s.
Of course, the opposition parties, no matter how hopeless their prospects may be, need to keep up the efforts to present an alternative choice. The Abe administration is attempting to erase the point of contention between his ruling bloc and the opposition camp by spelling out measures that cater to youths and women. What the opposition forces need, therefore, is to raise a policy flag that the current parties in power cannot possibly take.
For example, a phaseout of nuclear power and greater autonomy for women, such as enabling a choice of different surnames among married couples, will be among the examples where they can differentiate their policies in ways easy to understand for voters.
These policies are no isolated issues but matters that concern their core political values — whether they seek to preserve or destroy vested interests, or whether they endorse authoritarianism or individualism. They must take the trouble of setting an agenda that the ruling parties like to avoid, and force them into discussions on those issues.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.
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