Friday, September 18, 2009

Breaking from the past

Unprecedented turnout of voters effect landmark change in general elections in Japan.

In what must be a major landmark in Japanese politics, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which has governed Japan for more than five decades barring a very short interruption in the 1990s, was defeated comprehensively in the elections to the lower house of the Diet held on August 30th. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) managed to win 308 out of the 480 seats and formed the government with other smaller allies, the Social Democratic Party and the People's New Party of Japan. The mandate fuelled by a strong 69% voter turnout was a decisive rejection of the LDP - a party whose "machine" was built through years of collaboration between big business, the bureaucracy and adherence to the politics of patronage to effect a large coalition of support.

Despite its highly developed status, Japan has suffered a multitude of social problems over the years - that of rising unemployment (nearly 6% recently), an ageing population, poor birth indicators apart from nearly two decades of stagnant growth and drop in living standards, not to mention the huge impact of the recent global economic crisis on the highly export dependent Japanese economy. These structural conditions and the LDP's refusal to initiate any change in its ways of rule and continuation of the political and administrative status quo saw an unprecedented rise in its unpopularity, expressed in its defeat in the elections. Ideologically, there is little differentiation between these two parties as both are in the centre-right of the ideological spectrum, but there is a difference in their programmatic essences.

The DPJ while reiterating its belief in the "free market system" has pledged to take up the interests of consumers, small enterprises and non-profit organisations, as a contrast to the overtly strong relations between the LDP and the big export businesses in the country. What stuck a chord with the the voting public was the DPJ's avowed insistence on reforming the powerful bureaucracy in the country in a manner that it is responsive to the democratically elected polity and not vice-versa as is the status quo. Indeed, after forming the government on September 16th, the DPJ leader and new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama named a cabinet minister in charge of a new National Strategy Bureau. The bureau would now oversee a centralised policy planning and execution apparatus that would be in stark contrast to the past, wherein the bureaucracy drafted plans for various ministries, while ministers and legislators catered to special interest groups using lobbying or behind-the-doors deals. The DPJ received a positive mandate after being contrasted with a LDP government (and party) which had been plagued with a series of corruption scandals and a reputation of fostering an opaque environment of functioning involving legislators, bureaucrats and industry groups.

The LDP's traditional policies of building and maintaining a large support base through patronage and high spending infrastructure projects also wore out its course, as much of it was seen as wasteful spending helping special interest lobbies. Anger at the LDP was also directed because of the increased informalisation of employment (the LDP governments since 2005 had encouraged contractualisation of work) and the increased lay-offs of contracted workers primarily because of the global economic crisis. The DPJ put its emphasis on social security, on child support, consumer welfare and boosting internal demand in its manifesto, which was seen as a break from the patronage based offerings of the Taro Aso led LDP. The DPJ also drew a contrast from the LDP in its foreign policy outlook arguing for more nuanced external relationships - renegotiating the Status of Forces agreement with the US, closer ties with other countries like China in Asia. In comparison, the Junichiro Koizumi/ Taro Aso led LDP regimes since 2005 only got Japan much closer to the US, by taking part in the "War on Terror" through non-lethal military assistance and also pledging cooperation in security initiatives in the Indian Ocean.

The encouraging aspect of the 2009 elections was the high degree of participation resulting in the landslide defeat of the LDP. In a nation, where politics has often take a backseat in the consciousness of a highly networked populace in the industrialised nation, the sudden burst of enthusiasm to defeat the status quo marks a good beginning for greater participation in the political and civil society. It is also an encouraging sign for ideologically driven parties wishing to transform Japan into a far more egalitarian, pacifist and post-industrialist nation. In many senses, the defeat of the LDP has initiated a truly two party system in the single party dominated nation state since World War II. The DPJ's success in implementing some of its policies that are seen as sharp contrasts to the LDP will ultimately determine the stability of this system and by all accounts it is going to be a challenging time for the Hatoyama led government. Manipulating an all-powerful bureaucracy without alienating it, jump starting a two decade long stagnant economy and to address the onerous social issues in the nation - these will require herculean efforts.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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