Friday, September 11, 2009

the obligatory Japanese election post

Okay, this post is late and for that I apologize, but I've been busy down at the Ministry of Truthoffice rewriting the translations of what all the conservative movers and shakers think of the Japanese election. The consesus is that they are against it.

Doom and gloom is widely predicted by the right and less than 24 hours after the centerist Democratic Party of Japan signed a coalition with the leftish Social Democratic Party and the quasi-populist centerist/conservative People's New Party, headlines in the conservative press were announcing that cracks were already appearing in the tripartate alliance.

On the left, there is a bit more diversity of opinion. Some want to know when the bread and circuses will be arriving and others, realizing the economic fix the country is in, are being a bit more pragmatic and scaling back their expectations.

The new cabinet will be sworn in next week, so let's get cracking.

First, you need to know some things:
Japanese political history 101

Japanese media 101

Some decent political blogging on Japanese politics can be found at Tobais Harris' Observing Japan

Why the Liberal Democratic Party lost
As the old saw goes, the Liberal Democratic Party is neither, but that not really relevant here. The party lost the election for a variety of reasons

1. The economy sucks
2. Prime Minister Taro Aso brought a George W. Bush sort of eloquence to public speaking and was widely considered a bit of an embarrassment
3. The economy really sucks
4. People were sick and tired of the LDP after more than 50 years of them running the country. People have been sick and tired of the LDP for many years, but its never made much difference until now. Why? See reasons 1 thru 3.
5. The economy suuuuuuucks
6. The last elected Prime Minister in Japan was the very popular Junichro Koizumi, who was re-elected in a landslide snap election in 2005. Japan has had three unelected prime ministers since then.
7.Could it have been this kind of populist approach?

Education, Science and Technology Minister Ryu Shionoya also figuratively rose from the dead in a proportional representation bloc after losing in his single-seat constituency.
Shionoya said one cause of the LDP's defeat was "the people's lack of understanding of politics."
"I think the details of our policies haven't been conveyed to the public. I wonder how much ordinary citizens understand these things, including law-related points," he said.
"People need to make decisions based not solely on the lure of immediate gains. They need to think about what kind of society to build in the future," he said.
-Sept. 2 Daily Yomiuri

Mind you, that kind of elitism is rampant in Japan, but especially among the upper echelons of the LDP.
Japan is, in some ways still a feudal country at heart. People still go into the family business and follow in dad's footsteps professionally to much larger extent than in the west and parents still run their children's lives to a ripe old age.
And the aristocracy still rules. The vast majority of Diet members are graduates of one of about four elite universities - they go into the executive ranks of corporate Japan or the civil service and come out at age 50 to enter politics. That or they take over the seat from dear old dad, or granddad or uncle. Dynastic politics - children of politicians running for their parents and often grandparents old seat - is very common in Japan at all levels. Most of Taro Aso's Cabinet have a Cabinet Minister in their family tree somewhere and a full third of the LDP's elected Diet members in the last parliament were people who had effectively inherited their seats from family members.

Aso's paternal grandfather was prime minister and so was his father-in-law. His father ran a massive mining and cement company and his sister married into the Imperial family.

But the LDP hasn't cornered the market bluebloods either - the new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama is also a blueblood whose family has been called Japan's answer to the Kennedy clan.

Will the DPJ be any different?

Yes, at first. But while some of the old guard of the DPJ are the more centerist holdovers from the old Japan Socialist Party, a lot more of them are former LDP members or rookies whose main complaint about the old regime, aside from a few foreign and security policy points, is that it has denied them their turn at the trough. Power corrupts and we will eventually see the DPJ members getting their snouts in and the same cycle of corruption repeating.

What cycle is that? Well, the reason the LDP stayed in power for more than 50 years is that they managed to fulfill a vital role in post war Japan. It goes like this: To survive, a political party needs to get votes. To get those votes its needs money to campaign and money to reward areas that support it.

The LDP spent tax money like a drunken sailor on public works projects across the country - something very much needed to rebuild and modernize the nation in the 50s,but by the 70s, the government was building six-lane highways to nowhere, multi-million dollar bridges to tiny islands and spending tons of money on "anti-erosion" work - pouring concrete along the coast.

This brings jobs and money to rural areas and get the party votes. The construction industry in Japan is very much dominated by the Yakuza, so the contract bidding for all these projects were and still are, usually fixed. Companies collude to share the work and keep the price high, it's the Japanese way - the companies make money, the mob makes money and what the taxpayers don't know won't hurt them.

The mobsters then take their cut and launder it by donating it to the ultrarightist organizations they very often control, which in turn donate a slice of the cash to right wing politicians in the LDP and "spends" the rest at mob front businesses . The LDP also gets fat contributions from the construction companies and virtually anyone doing business with the government, which is just about everyone. The longer they stayed in power, the longer the reach of their fundraising tentacles. Whether the DPJ can or will step into the LDP's shoes in this cycle in the long run is an open question - I think they will try, but won't be as successful at it - but in the short run, the machine has been jammed by the change in government.

The LDP also promulgated a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency - the idea that Japan should be growing its own food, no matter the cost. This meant lots and lots of farm subsidies, which meant lots and lots of rural votes. And when you control the drawing of electoral districts, you can make sure that the rural votes you control count more heavily than those cast by big-city liberals and communists. It is reckoned that the vote of a farmer in out of the way Fukushima or Akita carries nearly three times the weight of a vote cast in Tokyo or Osaka, where the constituencies have far more voters.

Globalization of the economy has begun to put paid to that pillar of strength too, as Japan has been forced, grudgingly, to open up its agricultural markets to cheap food from China and the rest of Asia, a trend that will continue. The DPJ is offering a new and possibly more lucrative subsidy system to farmers in an attempt to bleed off some of the LDP's strength and has been somewhat successful, although voters in the countryside are still more likely to back the LDP than those in the city.


The biggest change promised by the DPJ and the one least likely to be noticed aboard is their promise to move Japan toward "politician-centered government" -- I know anywhere else that would sound a tad redundant and ridiculous, but here's the dirty little secret about Japanese democracy -- its really the bureaucracy that runs the country. For the last 50 years it has been the deputy ministers and and other senior bureaucrats that have made all of the real domestic policy decisions, to the extent the average Japanese probably wouldn't get the joke underlying"Yes, Minister" and would feel that the domineering civil servant played by Nigel Hawthorne is a bit of a pushover if anything. The DPJ has promised to replace a lot of the senior civil servants with elected political appointees. I'm not sure how well this will work out -- there is a lot to be said for having competent professionals running government departments rather than amateurs -- but it is good to see the bureaucracy challenged and the will of the people's elected officials take the precedence over bureaucratic precedent.

The DPJ have also promised to take a new look at Japan's alliance with the US with an eye toward being less subservient - not a task given the nature of the relationship over the last 50 years. This change will probably amount to the Japanese government waiting a decent interval before saying "how high, sir?" when America says "jump"ns on security matters, but even that would be a stunning display of spine. One of the junior coalition partners, the SDP, favors kicking the Yankees out of Okinawa. Luckily, they are already accustomed to disappointment.

Much has also been made about the likelihood of the DPJ bringing Japan closer to China. While this would be a good thing and may happen, I sincerely doubt that they will ever be best pals. Too many Chinese remember or have been taught what Japan did to China in the 30s and 40s and too many Japanese forget or have not been taught the same.

The real change that is liable to come about will be in security policy. The DPJ gives every appearence of taking Article 9 seriously and the SDP definitely does, so the likelihood of things like Japan's ridiculous "participation" in the Iraq occupation being repeated are considerably lower than under the closet militant nationalist in the LDP. I would expect the current mission by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force to refuel other nation's warships in the waters off Pakistan that are supposed to be on some kind of blockade of Afghanistan will not continue past next year.

What does the future hold?

Mostly, financial turmoil for the government as they try to live up to their promises of a generous baby bonus (about $250 a month per kid) amohanng other pledges of government largess for the common citizenry and some serious ructions as they try to wean the construction industry off the government teat u end the collusive practices in bidding on government contracts. I'm not convinced either of these coming to pass as I think that over time, the DPJ will come more and more to resemble the LDP of old and get stuck in at the trough. However, if they do manage to face down the bureaucracy and put the decision making power in the hands of elected officials, that will be it enough to earn them at least a second, if not a third term.

The LDP faces an interesting future. No one wants to lead the party right now and given the nature of Japanese consensus-based decision making, I won't be surprised to see a few members, or even entire factions of the party, cross the aisle. The LDP needs a strong leader to keep the various diverse faction united in opposition, but anyone coming forward to lead the y party now is unlikely to be around for the next election in four years, so the list of people willing to be leader of the opposition but never prime minister gets pretty short indeed.

The only caveat to this is the chance (about even odds) that the DPJ melts down on its own due to scandal or simple ineptitude as a party with no governing experience, and is forced to call a quick election. If that happens this year or next, the LDP could slither back into power. If the DPJ get three years at the helm without having to switch leaders more than once, they have a good chance at a second term if the economy revives and the North Koreans don't invade.

If nothing else, the entire exercise has taught the Japanese voter one thing - that they can change the party in power, that democracy does exist here, at least to some extent.

(crossposted, at considerable length, from the Woodshed)

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