Japan’s August 30 Election
August 26, 2009
Q1: What is this election?
A1: With only 90 days to spare before the Constitution required him to hold an election, beleaguered Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved the Lower House of the Diet and ordered an election for August 30. The 480 members of the Lower House are campaigning in 300 single seat districts and 180 proportional districts. The winner will form the new government, according to Japan’s parliamentary system.
Q2: Who will win?
A2: Opinion polls strongly suggest that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will win a landslide victory, possibly taking more than 300 seats and effectively reversing the current distribution of power in the Diet. For the most part, this represents a repudiation of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s mismanagement of the Japanese economy rather than a sweeping mandate for the DPJ. The Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, came to power in 1955 with two simple pledges—to align with the West in the Cold War and to grow the economy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the stalling of the Japanese economic miracle, the party lost both raisons d’etre and became increasingly listless and corrupt. Frustrated rebels within the party aligned with members of the opposition in 1993 to form a new government under Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in 1993, but by 1995 the LDP was back in power.
The LDP got a new lease on life when the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi vaulted to the top of the party in April 2001 and campaigned against his own party hierarchy in the name of reform. In the last Lower House election in 2005, Koizumi won a massive landslide for the LDP by kicking out anti-reformists from the party and taking his program directly to the people in national elections. Koizumi stepped down as a popular leader as he had promised to do in 2006, but his three successors—Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, and now Taro Aso—had none of his charisma or reformist zeal. Abe lost control of the Upper House in elections in July 2007 in the wake of a pension fund scandal, which meant the LDP now had to rely on its 2/3 majority in the Lower House to pass legislation. Afraid to go to the polls and often checkmated by the Upper House opposition, the LDP sat waiting desperately for some international event or economic turnaround to save them. They have now run out of time.
Q3: What does the DPJ stand for?
A3: The DPJ is a hodgepodge of politicians who did not fit into the LDP—either because they were on the left or because they did not inherit a district for election under the ruling party. In general the party has opposed Koizumi’s reforms as radically free-market and his foreign policy as too slavish to the United States. Over the past five years the party put out a series of policy “manifestos” advocating more independence from the United States and the closing of more U.S. bases. However, the most recent “manifesto” prepared for the August election blurs the demands for changes in the U.S.-Japan alliance, which party leaders recognize would provoke a fight between the left and the right and squander the Japanese public’s confidence in the party’s ability to manage foreign policy. Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ leader, is trying to strike a balance with the left by using vague promises of a more “equal” or “balanced” alliance, while keeping the right on board by putting off all decisions he can on security relations with Washington. Japan still lives in a dangerous neighborhood, and the Japanese people overwhelmingly support the alliance. It was one thing for the opposition party to take opportunistic partisan shots at the government for supporting the United States in the War on Terror or paying for U.S. bases, but it is quite another to put the alliance at risk when in power.
Instead, the DPJ will likely focus most of its political capital on stimulus and economic redistribution policies at home designed to win popularity and steal LDP constituents before a scheduled Upper House election next summer. Until then, the bureaucracy, the Obama administration, and the Japanese people will not be sure whether the DPJ will end up as a short-term footnote like Hosokawa in 1993 or fundamentally realign Japanese politics. If the DPJ government survives and wins big in the Upper House next year, then the mainstream leaders can dump the socialists and move to the center from where they can dominate Japanese politics the way the LDP had for six decades. That is certainly the plan of Ichiro Ozawa, the former DPJ-leader who had to resign in a campaign finance scandal. Ozawa is the kingmaker now. He is running the party’s elections strategy, and if there is a landslide victory, there will be more than a hundred new party members who owe their seats to him. That may be the best scenario of all for U.S.-Japan relations. Ozawa was a thorn in the side of the alliance when he was cynically trying to undermine Koizumi’s cooperation with George W. Bush, but he is also an old veteran of LDP politics and wants a more active and powerful Japan. He will move in that direction once he thinks he has dealt a body blow to the LDP and unshackled himself from the socialists.
Q4: What to watch for?
A4: This election is about the unpopularity of the LDP and not the popularity of DPJ leader Hatoyama or his specific policies, so keep an eye on who gets in the cabinet—individual ministers will have a big impact. Katusya Okada has made a lot of noise about establishing a more “Asianist” foreign policy and a nuclear-free zone in Asia, and he appears to mean it. He might try to make his stamp if he becomes foreign or defense minister. Seiji Maehara is considered a national security hawk, but is strongly opposed by former socialists. If he becomes foreign or defense minister, Japan will likely have a more assertive security policy. Naoto Kan is an anti-bureaucrat civil society actor, and wherever he ends up, the mandarins will tremble. Then there is Hatoyama himself. Tokyo is rife with rumors that Hatoyama’s personal secretary will be arrested for corruption soon, which could force him to step down. At that point we may see just how powerful Ozawa really is as a kingmaker.
The bottom line is that the election is unlikely to resolve Japan’s core economic challenges or fundamentally change the direction of U.S.-Japan relations. In fact, the next year could prove even more confusing for managers of the bilateral relationship and observers of the Japanese economy as the DPJ decides what it actually stands for in power. But in the medium-to-long run, this likely thrashing of the LDP has to happen before Japanese politics loosens up and begins producing real leadership again.
Michael Green is a senior adviser and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.