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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: September 5, 2009 NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 10, 2009
Moment of Choice
The outcome of the parliamentary elections in Japan ushers in a new phase of the country's political reform


VOTING FOR A NEW GENERATION: A Japanese girl helps her mother cast her ballot at a voting hall in Tokyo on August 30 

On August 30, Japanese voters decided they are ready to entrust their government to an untested political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). After being in charge for more than half a century, Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faced its first true challenge for power, and lost. But a DPJ victory was years in the making. After dealing a devastating blow to the LDP in the Upper House elections in 2007, Japan's political newcomer set its sights on the prime minister's office.

Opinion polls prior to the August 30 balloting revealed a rising level of support for a DPJ win, and in the cities and towns throughout Japan, an intense electoral battle was in full swing. Talk of this grand drama of postwar Japanese politics foreshadowed the end of an era, and in this narrative, the demise of the 1955 system's grand old dame is as significant as the emergence of the new ingenue.

Political realignment

For much of the last half century, Japan's voters saw the LDP as a force for stability and growth. Governance was a cooperative project between the LDP and the bureaucrats, an alliance that ensured the technocratic vision of the Japan Inc. model widely credited with Japan's postwar accomplishments. To its credit, the LDP transformed itself quite neatly to keep pace with a changing Japan.

The 1990s "lost decade," during which the economy stagnated, finally revealed the limitations of a bureaucracy long accustomed to single-party rule. Ministry after ministry was wracked with scandal, in many cases revealing a surprising disregard for citizen interests, and the reputation of Japan's elite bureaucrats was badly tarnished. Today, Japanese voters see an increasingly troubled government with deeply embedded special interests impeding social change rather than helping to manage it.

This moment of choice was far less dramatic, however, than current headlines suggest. A painstakingly slow and confusing process of political realignment has been on Japan's agenda for more than a decade. The prescription for this process was articulated in the early 1990s. Electoral reforms brought the opportunity for building a new opposition party to contend with the powerful LDP. Since then, a kaleidoscopic process of alignment and realignment produced myriad new political parties and coalitions, but the lingering role of smaller parties prevented a full and sudden shift to a two-party face-off.

Only once have Japanese voters chosen the LDP's opposition to govern Japan, and then it was an umbrella coalition of eight smaller parties that only lasted for 263 days. Some rather creative alliances facilitated the LDP's hold on power: In the mid-1990s, it joined with its longtime nemesis, the Japan Socialist Party, and in 1999, it made an even more significant alliance with the New Komeito, a party backed by a populist Buddhist organization, the Sokka Gakkai.

The LDP itself captured the Japanese public's need for something different when Junichiro Koizumi emerged as party leader in 2001. Koizumi articulated a reform agenda that included cleaning up Japan's banking system and restructuring the economy to make Japan more globally competitive. Most surprisingly, Koizumi took on his own party, arguing that the first step in transforming Japan was to reform the LDP itself. The Japanese voters rewarded Koizumi's effort in 2005 with a resounding victory, and the LDP and New Komeito together had a two thirds majority in Japan's Lower House. But the LDP has long since abandoned Koizumi's strategy, and today it is the DPJ that energizes the debate over how to transform Japan.

A change in government

The August 30 election, therefore, was the first time that Japan's voters were presented with a serious contender to the LDP. The DPJ was formed 11 years ago, and includes individuals associated with a broad range of political ideas. Naoto Kan, one of the party's early leaders, gained fame for confronting malfeasance in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, and Yukio Hatoyama, its current leader, is a grandchild of one of Japan's leading postwar liberals.

The DPJ's electoral strategist is none other than the original instigator of the lengthy process of redrawing Japan's political map, Ichiro Ozawa. It is his electoral brilliance that has brought the party to center stage. The party's message was clear and simple: Offer voters a choice. It wants nothing short of systemic change and advocates a program of institutional reorganization that will sever some of the key relationships that sustained the LDP's postwar dominance. In his stump speeches during the campaign, DPJ President Hatoyama promised "a massive cleanup" and argued the need to put the citizen's representatives—the elected politicians—in charge.

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