Abe must respond to new political reality

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, 12:00am

After more than half a century of stagnation, Japan's democratic evolution has taken a step forward with the opposition decisively winning elections for the upper house of parliament. The Democratic Party of Japan's success in breaking the stranglehold that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its allies used to wield over both houses of parliament is a significant milestone in the country's political development.

The LDP's defeat has been attributed to the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government has been plagued by one scandal after another since he took office 10 months ago. But while it might be convenient to put the blame on him alone, the results of the election are more a reflection of Japanese voters' dissatisfaction with the off-handed manner in which they have been treated by the LDP. For too long, the party has had such a dominant position that it has not had to change its way of governing. Back-room deals and pandering to influential minorities and big business have been the hallmarks of its rule.

Real power in Japan rests in the lower house of parliament, where the LDP holds two-thirds of the seats. Lower house elections are not due until 2009, so it is not in Mr Abe's interests to call snap elections. Nor should he resign. He has been dealt a political blow, but the lack of an obvious successor and with a leadership change likely in the opposition, Japan needs certainty, not instability. Ensuring a continuation of present foreign policy is equally important. Japan's relations with China are at their strongest for years due to Mr Abe's efforts and his remaining at the helm will maintain the course.

Restoring confidence has to be his priority and he must act swiftly. Forming a new cabinet is a strong starting point, but showing greater sensitivity to the needs of ordinary Japanese will mean overhauling the way in which the LDP governs. This does not mean turning to the nationalist right who put him in power - he has to properly represent the nation's people.

Given the new political environment, Mr Abe must ensure that the LDP works with the opposition, not against it. Only in this way can Japan's new political reality take root and bring about the democracy that has been for too long absent.