It has been a busy month for politics, with national elections taking place in a number of countries around the world. In almost every case, continuity has prevailed, even when leadership has changed.
The recent events in Japan are typical, with the election of Fumio Kishida as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) assuring that the policies of the last decade, or since his party retook power, will remain in place. While stability is important, more will be required of governments at a time of sharp and growing challenges.
Last month, Russia held parliamentary elections that, to the surprise of no one, were won by President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. United Russia claimed 314 seats, which, while a loss of 20 from the previous ballot in 2016, allowed it to maintain its supermajority in parliament.
While the government did its best to crack down on the opposition, independent observers have alleged widespread fraud was the eventual guarantee of the landslide win. The victory, however achieved, will be used to show that Putin maintains his iron grip on the political system and commands the support of the Russian people.
Canadians went to the polls that same weekend after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election that was intended to secure a majority after serving for two years as head of a minority government and to shore up his standing. Trudeau’s Liberal Party prevailed, and while it won four more seats over the previous ballot in 2019, it remained 11 seats shy of a parliamentary majority.
Not only was he denied a mandate, but the Liberal Party’s 31.8% share of the popular vote, noted one commentator, is the smallest for any winning party in Canada’s history.
In perhaps the most consequential election, German voters went to the polls last weekend to pick a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the Christian Democratic Union, who has been a pillar of stability for her country and Europe for 16 years. It was expected to be a close election, with predictions of a winner shifting throughout the course of the campaign.
The results were indecisive. While the Social Democrats took the largest share of the popular vote — 25.7% — neither they nor the Christian Democrats (who won 24.1%) can claim a mandate to govern. The leaders of those two major parties represent stability and policy continuity, which may account for the cool reception both received from voters.
German politics are evolving. Young voters are increasingly unhappy with policy stasis and they want change, especially when it comes to dealing with climate issues. Yet as the parties negotiate and jostle for advantage in the formation of a new government, the grounds for any eventual compromise are unclear. As a result, Merkel will remain in office, perhaps even through the beginning of next year.
And then there was last week’s LDP election, a prelude to the national ballot that must be called in a few weeks. Kishida prevailed, as many anticipated, in a vote for continuity and stability. He will maintain policies launched by Shinzo Abe when he reclaimed the Prime Minister’s Office in 2012 and continued by his successor, Yoshihide Suga.
While his main challenger, administrative reform minister Taro Kono was more popular with the general public, distrust of the opposition remains high and all odds are on the LDP maintaining its majority after the national vote in November.
There is a case for continuity. It is reassuring. Many of the policies in place make sense. And, importantly, stability appeals to power brokers in Tokyo, Berlin, Ottawa and Moscow. Continuity avoids uncertainty, confusion and hard choices and allows minority governments or those with bare majorities to claim legitimacy. Absent a crisis, they reason, there is no need to change course.
That assumes that trends are favorable. That is by no means clear to be the case. COVID-19 appears to be under control, but experts anticipate yet another wave during the winter months. There is a steady movement in geopolitics. Inequality, within and among nations, is growing. Climate change is accelerating and its impacts growing. The election results suggest that nationalist and populist pressures may not dominate politics, but they are present, nonetheless.
In this world, leadership is vital. These elections do not augur well. While forces of illiberalism consolidate and gain traction, democracies spin their wheels. Trudeau continues to head a minority government. Germany plays an outsized role in European politics, allowing Merkel not only to guide her country but the European Union as well. Her departure will create a vacuum and there is no obvious replacement in Berlin or any other European capital, although French President Emmanuel Macron harbors ambitions. Moreover, her continued presence in the Chancellery in Berlin means that no German leader can begin to try.
That absence means that yet more is demanded of Japan’s leaders. It is not enough for Kishida to merely continue policies that were launched by Abe. Tokyo must do more to keep pace as regional dynamics accelerate amid intensified great power competition.
The region needs a leader who actively supports democracy, rule of law and respect for human dignity. Creativity, energy and stamina are required. It is unclear if Kishida is that champion. For the sake of Japan, the region and the world, we hope he will prove to be.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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