[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Political lessons of Japan’s election

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Political lessons of Japan’s election

Last Sunday’s lower house election in Japan was a rare political event: both sides won. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partners obtained a clear working majority, ensuring that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will remain in power. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan gained 40 seats for a total of 177, putting it past the previous record for number of seats for a single opposition party. The enduring strength of the LDP and rise of the Democratic Party as a strong opposition mark the emergence of a competitive two-party system in Japan.
The consequences for Japan and their implications for Korea deserve further discussion. The most obvious consequence is that the Democratic Party is now in a strong enough position to take power in a subsequence election. Before the election, the LDP was more than 100 seats ahead of the Democratic Party but the gap has narrowed to 60 seats now. An LDP loss of 20 seats and a Democratic Party gain of 20 in a future election, for example, would put the Democratic Party in a position to form a government with smaller political groups. When the opposition was split into several competing weak parties, voters could not easily visualize a change in government, but the strength of the Democratic Party changes that.
The consequences for policy of the election are also interesting. The Democratic Party ran on a clear, well-defined platform of moderate reform, which helped position the party between the LDP and the left-wing Social Democrats and Communists. The LDP also ran on a reform platform, but entrenched anti-reform, anti-Koizumi forces in the party have given it an out-of-date image that is hard to shake. On economic and social issues, the Democratic Party called for broader reforms to address voter concerns over the economy. On foreign policy issues, it presented itself as defending the status quo by opposing Prime Minister Koizumi’s call for sending Self-Defense Forces to Iraq. The Democratic Party’s success shows that voters are becoming increasingly impatient about the economy while remaining wary of the foreign policy based on status quo.
Demographically, the election results suggest problems for the LDP. The LDP swept single-constituency contests in rural areas with declining populations, but lost single- and multi-constituency seats in urban areas, particularly in bellwether suburban areas.
Taken together, the results show that the LDP and Prime Minister Koizumi have to watch their back as never before. A return to special-interest policies of the past would no doubt ensure the party’s defeat while failure to address voter worries over the economy will weaken Koizumi’s position. All of this suggests that the prime minister will move toward the Democratic Party center by focusing on economic reform while playing down foreign policy initiatives.
For Korea, the election in Japan offers interesting perspectives. Though there has been no change in administration, the prospect of a competitive two-party system will force politicians in both parties to pay closer attention to the people. The LDP can no longer rely on special-interest machine politics to keep power, and the Democratic Party needs to keep its ears to the ground to protect its recent gains. This competitive relationship will force both parties to look to the center, which will marginalize ideologically rigid forces on the right and left. At a time of sharp ideological conflict in Korea, the moderating effects of a two-party system would be beneficial.
The introduction of single-constituencies in the late 1990s has forced the emergence of a two-party system because it encourages like-minded parties to merge to win elections. The current system of single constituencies in Korea produces a similar result, which suggests that the current multi-party organization of the National Assembly is an aberration of underlying trends. Proposals to move toward multi-constituencies and proportional representation may sound good in abstract, but they risk creating a fragmentary political structure that gives undue say to minor political forces.
Finally, the Grand National Party (GNP) can learn from the LDP’s current predicament. As the majority party in the National Assembly facing an unpopular president, the GNP may overestimate its strength with the voters. Like the LDP, the GNP views itself as the natural party of government and has had trouble turning itself into a competitive electoral party. It lost the last two presidential elections because its candidate had a conservative, authoritarian image that was out of step with the times. In the information age, no party is the natural party of government because everything is up for grabs.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

by Robert J. Fouser
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