Can the DPJ really sing a new tune?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 July, 2009, 12:00am

Japan now faces a long, hot summer of a potentially historic election, which is likely to see the ruling Liberal Democratic Party rudely turfed from power by voters for the first time since it was founded more than 50 years ago. (The 10 months out of power in the 1990s was due to internal splits and defections, not election defeat.)

The difficult question is: what happens next? Today, it is as if Japan is collectively sleepwalking towards a future fraught with impossible problems, with no clue what to do. It will be the ultimate in karaoke politics - the orchestral backing comes from a machine and now a new unknown with no experience of power will step into the spotlight and pretend that he is the star. The trouble for Japan is that he will be the ruler of the country facing those impossible problems.

There will be a phoney interlude until the campaign proper begins on August 18. But a lot about this struggle has been phoney. Right until the moment that the current man with the karaoke microphone dissolved parliament, it was still an open question whether the LDP might tear itself publicly apart before an election.

Party dissidents wanted to prevent Prime Minister Taro Aso calling the election 'early', itself a phoney claim because the life of parliament would have ended in early September anyway. Others wanted to choose a new leader rather than Mr Aso, who would have been the LDP's fourth in three years, none of whom had faced the electorate.

A tearful Mr Aso apologised for his shortcomings, but expressed determination to retain power and said he would put the stalled economy at the top of his list of priorities.

It seems unlikely that the electorate will let him. Mr Aso's personal popularity rating has been about 20 per cent, and this week slipped to 17 per cent. Opinion polls showed the opposition Democratic Party of Japan well ahead, with about 40 per cent of the vote, against 20 per cent or less for the LDP.

Mr Aso's last forlorn hope must be that, faced with the enormity and unknown consequences of an LDP loss of power, voters may step back from the brink and give the party another chance. There may be something in this: DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama scored less than 30 per cent as the choice for prospective prime minister. Almost 60 per cent of voters said that neither Mr Aso nor Mr Hatoyama was fit to rule.

But Mr Aso threw away his chances. When chosen last year to succeed a quick succession of other hapless leaders who had wasted the landslide majority that Junichiro Koizumi had won for the LDP in 2005, he was seen as a maverick who might unexpectedly do something with his power. Instead, his maverick tendencies have been shown only in his arrogance, poor choice of ministers and general dithering.

The Asahi Shimbun said this week that Mr Aso proved himself 'pathetically unfocused and incapable of convincing the public of his often shaky policies'.

It is eerie being in Japan today. All the outward signs of a vigorous democracy are present and correct: a vociferous press, the cut and thrust of debate in and around parliament, backstabbing in the corridors of power and avidly followed opinion polls predicting a sea change.

But there is almost no realistic debate about the grim reality of Japan today - that the government is heavily in debt, the economy is stuck somewhere between negative and abysmal growth, unemployment is rising, the old ways of lifetime employment are disappearing, and the expensive costs of an ageing and declining population are beginning to bite in inexorably rising health and welfare expenditures. Beyond Japan's shores is the challenge of the rise of China and India, the implications of which are not being addressed.

Failure to debate real issues is aided by strict campaign rules that help generate noise and heat but not much enlightenment. Each candidate is allowed a single car, and limited posters and printed material. National television commercials are few and government-financed. Election authorities have told candidates that it is against the rules for them to use the internet to get their messages out, not even to Twitter.

The opposition perpetuates unreality by refusing to detail what it would do in power. Most opposition leaders were once LDP members who left out of frustration or opportunism.

As the election has drawn closer, the DPJ has tried to distance itself from the LDP by making grand but mostly unspecific promises of doing things differently. It has, for example, talked of a more independent foreign policy, which is causing some concern in Washington.

The DPJ's economic arithmetic is particularly problematic. The party has pledged to spend money to protect the growing numbers of poor in Japan. It has promised subsidies to try to raise the birth rate, to cut highway tolls and taxes on pension income. But it has also said that it will not increase the 5 per cent consumption tax during the lifetime of the next parliament to pay for the mounting bills.

The LDP had been waiting for an opportune moment to raise the tax as high as 10 per cent to plug the leaky government finances. The government's debts are the highest in the world and heading for an unprecedented 200 per cent of gross domestic product, just as the demands of its ageing population are increasing.

The LDP long enjoyed cosy, sometimes corrupt, relationships with bureaucrats. The opposition has said that it wants to break up the special amakudari (literally 'descended from heaven') deals under which well-paid top officials retire to be better-paid executives of companies they previously supervised as bureaucrats.

But it is an open question how the bureaucracy will react to a government determined to end its special privileges or how a government would react to a recalcitrant bureaucracy, surely not by smashing the karaoke backing machine.

Kevin Rafferty is author of Inside Japan's Powerhouses, a study of Japan Inc and Internationalisation