Japan voters seek change, may get chaos

July 12, 2010

Five years ago, Japanese voters seeking change from stale politics and a stagnant economy backed maverick leader Junichiro Koizumi’s calls for reform, handing his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) a huge win in an election for parliament’s powerful lower house.

Two years, several scandals and one incompetent prime minister later, they dealt the same LDP a stinging setback in a 2007  upper house election, creating a “Twisted Parliament” where the upper chamber could stall bills and delay policies.

The gridlock toppled the LDP’s Shinzo Abe and his successor,  each after about a year in office, and finally last summer the same electorate — still longing for something new and better — swept the novice Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to power, ending more than half a century of almost non-stop LDP rule and ejecting  Taro Aso from the PM’s seat. The DPJ, voters hoped, would make good on promises to change how Japan was governed, ending bureaucratic control of policies, and somehow ensuring that Japan emerged from two decades of the doldrums.

JAPAN-ELECTION/Now, after less than a year  of chaotic policymaking,  indecisive leadership and more scandals under DPJ premier  Yukio Hatoyama, followed by sudden talk of a sales tax hike from former grassroots activist Naoto Kan, who took over when Hatoyama suddenly quit,  frustrated voters did it again.

On Sunday, they delivered a harsh rebuke to the DPJ and a tiny ally, depriving them of an upper house majority and setting the stage for another bout of deadlock as Japan struggles to engineer growth in a fast-ageing society and curb a gigantic public debt.

“Voters were not trying to create political confusion, but that is the result,” said independent political analyst Hirotaka Futatsuki, adding that calls for a snap lower house election that might not solve anything would grow. No lower house poll need be held until 2013.

Scenarios abound for possible ways out of the political bind.

Among them are a tie-up between the DPJ  and the small, pro-reform Your Party (even that would be a few seats short of a majority), a “grand coalition” between the Democrats and the LDP, or a sweeping rejig of party allegiances that would magically create policy coherence out of chaos.

Not many experts seem optimistic.

“Japanese politics is back to talking, not acting,” said Jesper Koll, director of equity research at JP Morgan Securities Japan. “We’re likely to have lost another two years stuck in parliamentary gridlock rather than action.”

Some commentators, though, suggested an upside: no policies might be better than bad ones.

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