Little to celebrate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2000, 12:00am

There was little good news for the dominant Liberal Democratic Party in Sunday's Japanese election results - and not much for anyone else either.

The party slipped into minority status and will form the next government only with the help of two smaller parties, both of which also lost seats. The most obvious conclusion is that Japan will have one more cautious, faceless administration, without the courage and imagination needed to do something serious about its decade-old economic slump.

This is bad news for the rest of Asia and the world. Japan still exports vast quantities of goods and services; it ran up a trade surplus of nearly US$127 billion (HK$990 billion) during the most recent 12 months reported and has reserves (minus gold) which exceed those of the 11 'Euroland' nations and the US combined. But slow growth, consumer pessimism and de facto protectionism continue to prolong a recession and keep Japan from importing what it should to help other economies stay buoyant.

Successive Tokyo governments, of course, have had programmes for solving this - they have tried to spend their way to prosperity with huge public works schemes. This has had some success. Japan recently reported an annual growth rate of 0.5 per cent and may achieve 1.5 per cent for 2000. But other results include new roads and bridges leading to nowhere, a gigantic national debt and stored-up problems for future years.

The next government promises only more of the same. It has a massive spending plan in hand to pump even more money into civic projects of dubious worth. Much of it enriches the construction companies concerned, who then recycle some back to those who passed the spending plans in the first place.

As the election results show, many Japanese voters are tired of this recurring pattern of waste and corruption. They voted out several sitting legislators, including two cabinet ministers, and turned against the Liberal Democrats' two political partners. This leaves the ruling coalition with 56 per cent of the Diet's seats, down from 65 per cent in the outgoing legislature.

However, the coalition will remain on top because the Japanese political opposition remains uninspiring. For several reasons, no credible alternative leadership has emerged and this remains little changed. The main opposition, the Democratic Party, did grow from 95 seats in the former Diet to 127 in the new and smaller one, causing some analysts to claim a real two-party system is emerging. If so, that still seems years away - the opposition's programmes have not captured the public imagination.

To a large degree, all this is Japan's own problem. Yet other nations do have a legitimate interest in what happens because they need a prosperous and briskly trading Japan for their own well-being. To face yet another Tokyo government which spends borrowed money rather than addressing structural issues is not in their interest.