Japan's political turmoil offers chance of renewal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2009, 12:00am

It says something about the sad state of Japanese politics that even before the latest turmoil, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi topped a poll on voters' preferred leader for the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Leaving aside visits to a war shrine that damaged Sino-Japanese relations, voters still pine for the skilful, charismatic campaigner with the courage to take on the LDP old guard over economic reform and wasteful spending on public works aimed at winning votes.

Current prime minister Taro Aso is the third since Mr Koizumi. If, as seems likely, he leads his party to electoral defeat next month after an almost unbroken 54-year grip on power, the LDP will pay the price for resurgent pork-barrel politics, political paralysis, policy flip-flops and economic decline. As a result, the world's second-biggest economy will likely face a period of political realignment. Opinion polls predict a win for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a combination of loosely affiliated groups that have buried their differences in opposition. It remains to be seen whether they can continue to do so when dividing the spoils, power and influence of office. It is already the largest party in the upper house, which holds out the prospect of more effective government. But DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, elected only two months ago on a pledge to clean up Japanese politics, must spell out clear domestic and foreign policies.

Some political commentators predict that defeat will mean the end of the LDP as we know it, with a party founded on a postwar merger of conservative factions reverting to warring groups. Mr Aso's sudden decision to name August 30 the date for an election due by September 10 followed a heavy defeat in Sunday's Tokyo metropolitan election, on top of approval ratings as low as 20 per cent. The alternative was to resign or face a move to replace him.

Failing a political miracle, Japan faces a rare change of government - and a lot of questions, beginning with what comes next. Can the DPJ find the backbone to snap political paralysis and restore effective leadership? Can the LDP reinvent itself and bounce back? Sadly, there is no obvious candidate in the ranks who can take the party by the scruff of the neck and refit it for power - like the British Labour Party's Tony Blair; nor is the Japanese establishment known for breeding such politicians. The least to be hoped for is that the coming election is the threshold of political renewal from which the foundations of more effective government emerge.