When the Japanese public voted out the Liberal Democratic party last August, its main objective was to end its 50-year grip on power and to give the Democratic Party of Japan a chance to get the country out of a rut. But political analysts, both foreign and domestic, thought they detected another motive. That was the creation of a two-party system that would enfranchise a hitherto passive electorate by giving it a genuine opportunity to choose between competing ideologies and – at intervals rather shorter than half a century – to get rid of underperforming governments.
If that really was the aim, then it does not seem to be panning out. The proximate cause is that the LDP, deprived of the unifying force born of power, is in danger of disintegrating. Far from coalescing around a coherent ideology, it has further fragmented. This month Kunio Hatoyama, said to be its wealthiest member and brother of Yukio Hatoyama, the prime minister, quit. Kaoru Yosano, a policy heavyweight and former finance minister, is also talking about setting up a new party. Yoichi Masuzoe, an LDP member who is a household name, is threatening to leave what he calls the Lousy Dumb party. If they all went, the LDP would have lost its richest, its smartest and its most popular members in quick succession. To make matters worse, or at least more confused, the ruling DPJ continues to be an ideological ragbag. Power has done little to consolidate its policy positions: it has squabbled openly over such important issues as the realignment of US bases and reversing post office privatisation. It has been a dithery start to a new era.
Japan may be ill suited to the sort of ideological clarity that some hoped for. One should be wary of cultural explanations. But it is true that Japan remains a consensual society where divisions of race, religion and even class are smaller than in many other democracies. Political parties are less about clearly defined ideologies – social welfare versus fiscal rectitude, a “good neighbour” policy versus a strong US alliance – and more about personal relationships and the brokering of power and money. That’s fine so far as it goes. But it is not conducive to decisive action at a time when Japan is drifting economically and buffeted by greater forces, notably the rise of China. There are no quick fixes to such a state of affairs. But if the LDP could get its act together, it might just force the DPJ to do the same. That, at least, would be a start.
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