Japan needs a genuine two-party system now

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2009, 12:00am

Japan has changed course. Voters have turned overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party of Japan to give hope and bring change. Their decision came amid global economic turmoil and record unemployment. But prime minister-in-waiting Yukio Hatoyama has an equally important challenge: to help Japanese gain the political accountability and choice they have for so long been denied.

Clearly, the Japanese want a better future and they see the best chance of this happening with the DPJ in government. Its election means regime change, but also a possibility that a perceived decline in standards of living can be reversed. While their first desire has been attained, the second is not as easily achievable.

Faith in the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled virtually uninterrupted since 1955, had been lost. Arrogance and mismanagement plagued its ranks. The administrative and economic reforms Japan needed to escape two decades of stagnation were not forthcoming. Voters had no difficulty turning from its negative election campaigning in favour of the DPJ's positive message. That the DPJ has won a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament means it now controls both houses. But turning policies into law will be difficult. Its manifesto requires funding that may not be forthcoming. Compromise may be necessary.

But it is not campaign promises that voters necessarily went for in choosing the DPJ on Sunday. In many respects, the platforms of the two parties were similar, although there were differences in approach on the environment, foreign policy and security.

However, domestic issues received the most attention during campaigning. On election day, it was the offer of new leadership that counted in the eyes of many.

There was hope in 1955 with the forming of the major parties, the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party, that parliamentary politics would evolve along Westminster lines. But no viable multiparty system was created and the LDP became deeply entrenched. Over the years, it abused its position of trust. The government's ear was held not by the majority of voters, but minority groups, big business and the bureaucracy. Eventually, internal dissatisfaction led to factions, which evolved into opposition parties such as the DPJ, but their leaders were cut from the same political cloth, sharing similar values and beliefs.

Hatoyama, like his defeated opponent Prime Minister Taro Aso, is from Japan's elite. Both had grandfathers who were prime ministers and both come from families that became wealthy from industry. They joined the LDP after studying at top universities in Japan and the US. Outwardly, their biggest difference would seem to be that they head opposing parties.

Tackling the economy is the DPJ's most immediate challenge. There are wider problems that are just as difficult, though, such as reform of the bureaucracy. The party has no guarantee of fulfilling its promises. But it can - and must - embrace the wider remit it has been given of offering choice. By making a concerted effort to move away from its conservative roots and differentiate itself from the LDP, it will give the nation a genuine two-party system.

History was made at the polls on Sunday with the LDP's defeat. If the event is to have greater meaning for Japan, though, the DPJ must now reach out to the people. A break has to be made with one-party rule. The hope Japanese long for is best given through policies that give choice.