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Japan: an election for what or to where?

17 December 2012

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Peter Drysdale is Emeritus Professor of Economics and the Head of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research and East Asia Forum at the Crawford School. He is widely recognised as the leading intellectual architect of APEC. He is the author of a number of books and papers on international trade and economic policy in East Asia and the Pacific, including his prize-winning book, International Economic Pluralism: Economic Policy in East Asia and the Pacific.

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Shinzo Abe may have won a decisive victory in Japan's general election, but behind the numbers lies disquiet about the country's political leadership and future direction, writes PETER DRYSDALE.

As the polls forecast in the lead up to yesterday’s election in Japan, the LDP has romped home with a large majority in the Lower House of the Japanese Diet. The DJP government took a hiding to nowhere.

Surveys by the Kyodo and Mainichi just before the poll, suggesting that the LDP with its longstanding coalition partner Komeito would exceed 300 seats while the DPJ would fall below 70, appear not to have been too far off the mark. The defeat of the DPJ has been just as devastating as the LDP’s collapse in 2009. While it remains the second largest party in the Diet, the DPJ has not many more members than the Restoration Party, a new political party led by way-out former Tokyo Governor, Shintaro Ishihara, and Osaka’s populist Mayor, Toru Hashimoto (56 to 52 at the latest count).

Japanese voters switched to the DPJ three years ago as it promised new leadership and a reformist agenda: better pension plans, child care and education programs to be paid for not by hiking taxes but by cutting waste from the budget and fighting a fat bureaucracy. They deserted it in droves this time round as it broke one promise after another — adopting the LDP’s consumption tax hike and feeding rather than eliminating the ‘tax- eaters’ — looking more and more like an incompetent imitation of the old LDP.

And there’s the paradox.

The LDP hardly looked much like a winner on form over the incumbent DPJ. It shows little sign of having changed its old parish-pump habits. Indeed, it turns out, the LDP landslide was not because Japanese voters rediscovered a new LDP, or were persuaded by its recycled leader, Shinzo Abe, about ‘regaining a Japan we can be proud of’. Rather the anti-LDP forces splintered miserably, failing to form a united and clear alternative. Skewed as the system is in favour of large parties, the largest one left standing took the prize. In fact, the electoral support for the LDP in this election appears hardly greater than it was in the disastrous 2009 election. Fragmentation and incoherence among Japan’s progressivist parties lost the election; Abe and the LDP won the election by default.

At face value an Abe government could mean a substantial shift in Japanese policy, not all of it comfortable for Japan’s neighbours and friends. Abe sees a future including nuclear energy; is strong on the right to ‘collective defence’; is assertive over territorial claims; but, handmaiden of Japan Agriculture that it is, does not want to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that might free trade and strengthen the US alliance relationship.

While the LDP has won a decisive two-thirds majority in the Lower House, which allows it to resubmit and pass legislation rejected in the Upper House, forming a political coalition on any of these objectives will not be easy. The Japanese polity is deeply split on these and other issues and, as the poll numbers show, there is no deep electoral mandate for any of them. The Restoration Party, for example, which shares Abe’s hawkish view about the Constitution and collective defence (to deter China, among other things), will not solve Abe’s problem of commanding a majority in the Upper House where the Restoration Party has only three seats. And the LDP’s main coalition partner, the Komeito, is wary of supporting these changes. The configuration of policy positions across parties means that Abe would have to take political philandering to new heights — into serial political coalition with a different party on almost every issue of national importance — in order to strike the deals the LDP would have to get what it wants.

There’s more likely movement on the economic policy front where the LDP and Komeito have closely convergent positions: an inflation target; dealing with the high yen; and spending up on infrastructure (a ‘back-to-the-future’ program that gained traction with the collapse of the Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway). The infrastructure budget has been shrinking over time and there is a case for revitalisation of Japan’s ageing infrastructure. But letting the LDP lead on infrastructure revitalisation is rather like putting a vampire in charge of the blood bank.

As Michael Cucek points out in this week’s lead essay ’the salient political problem of the past half-decade — opposition control of the House of Councillors (the Upper House), no matter what the ruling coalition — cannot be rectified by an election of the House of Representatives (the Lower House). The lack of pivotal issues or popular leaders … resulted in voters choosing a default option based upon traditional ties. The LDP, as the traditional party in power, has benefited the most from this reflexive pattern of voting. Yet most of Japan’s voters are not aligned with a particular party. The LDP still musters less than 28 per cent of support’.

On top of all this, the election was conducted using electoral constituencies the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional. While the Court was unwilling to block the election going forward, it will likely be less shy about challenges to the results. A crusading group of lawyers is ready to file lawsuits in 60 jurisdictions today, seeking to invalidate the election’s outcomes.

Cucek has a point: for the Japanese electorate this must feel like a ‘nothing election’: an election called for no reason, lacking attractive candidates or fundamental legitimacy and properly articulated choice, despite the multitude of parties who contested the polls. The outcome might appear decisive and clear. Shinzo Abe is prime minister again with a huge majority and the LDP has regained power after just three years in the wilderness.

In reality Japan’s election result is deeply opaque, leaving a sense of continuing directionless-ness, a profound disquiet about the unreliability of Japanese political leadership and where it might take the country, by hapless accident rather than purposeful choice.

This piece was originally published on East Asia Forum

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