[Viewpoint] Japan shows reform is a long road

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[Viewpoint] Japan shows reform is a long road

Ichiro Ozawa, the former president of Japan’s largest opposition party, was at the height of his power when he advocated political reform in 1991. He was then the chief secretary of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the second-in-command of the powerful Takeshita faction. He was known for his political manipulation, interviewing the three candidates for party president in his office at the beginning of the Miyazawa government. Ozawa acted like a king maker behind the scenes. That’s why many Japanese feel resentment toward him.

In January, 1991, Ozawa wrote in the monthly magazine Bungeishunju, “The existing structure of an eternal ruling party and a perennial opposition party cannot respond to the rapidly changing world. We must break the idle and slack composition of the ruling and opposition parties. If politics remains the same, the Liberal Democratic Party will have reign over the government forever, leaving no choice for the citizens.”

A two-party system, like those of the United States and the United Kingdom, was his vision. He proposed electoral reform as a means to accomplish political reform. He called for the multiple-member districts, from each of which three to five representatives were elected, to be replaced by single-member districts. Under the multiple-member system, he argued, ruling and opposition candidates are always elected in the same district and so factions compete in districts. This makes the ruling party stale and the opposition slack.

Ozawa called Japanese politics a structure of overall collusion, essentially made up of one part Liberal Democratic Party and one half part Socialist Party. He argued that single-member districts would make policy debates more brisk, and would ultimately lead to a two-party system that allows for administrative change. Along with that political reform plan, he also promoted the transformation of Japan into a “normal nation” and re-militarization.

In 1993, Ozawa left the Liberal Democratic Party after supporting a vote of no confidence in the Miyazawa government for delaying the political reform bills. They eventually passed.

Fifteen years later, Japanese politics is faced with a historic breakthrough. Opinion polls show that the Democratic Party of Japan will almost certainly win the majority in the House of Representatives. The Democrats in their current form have participated in three House of Representatives elections, and the Liberal Democratic Party has always been the largest party while the Democrats’ influence has varied.

But now, the largest opposition party will finally be able to take power. Even when it had to form coalition governments, the LDP had the most power in Japanese politics. Now the Japanese are calling the latest rise of the Democratic Party “Heisei Democracy,” a reference to the Taisho Democracy movement before World War II. The Democratic Party’s campaign slogan is “Revolutionary Election.” This transfer of power would not have been possible if the electoral districts had not been reorganized. The revolution was made possible by the power of the new system, and Ozawa’s vision fanned that revolution.

Ozawa has been walking an unconventional road. When he was the head of the Liberal Party, he formed a coalition with the LDP. When he was leading the Democratic Party, he was burned while trying to form a coalition with them once more. The party was only a tool to realize his policies. It was Ozawa himself who put an end to the Abe-Fukuda government by maneuvering to an opposition victory in the House of Councilors election two years ago.

Yet it is hard to criticize him as a traitor. Ozawa has never compromised his political beliefs. Having resigned from the post of president over a fund scandal, he seems to be enjoying the silver age of his political career. After this election, reportedly his faction within the Democratic Party will swell to over 100, which will make it as powerful as the Takeshita faction in the Liberal Democratic Party. This is the irony of Japanese politics.

The upcoming election reminds us of an ordinary truth. A historic task cannot be done overnight. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said the framework of the country had been slowly constructed through four elections. The reform of the electoral system was the foundation. Those initiating the change should not cling to their own interests. A vision for the nation is a prerequisite. Without a vision, any discussion about electoral reform will end up a power game.

The chronic illness of Korean politics is regionalism, which is closely related to Japan’s old multi-member district system. This decades-old problem cannot be resolved with an instant solution. It will be reasonable to tackle it starting with the election system. A change into medium or large electoral districts would bring visible results much later. Korean politicians need the faith and boldness that Ozawa displayed.


*The writer is the vice director of the Unification Research Institute.

by Oh Young-hwan
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