Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Japan two-party system — long in arriving

August 28, 2009

Observers of Japanese politics who have long thought the country was ripe for a real two-party system are watching Sunday’s election with a dual sense of incredulity — surprise that it has taken so long to oust the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and surprise that it finally looks like happening.

Media surveys show the decade-old opposition Democratic Party is set to win the poll for parliament’s powerful lower house – and probably by a landslide, ushering in party leader Yukio Hatoyama at the head of a government pledged to spend more on consumers and workers than the companies that benefited most from LDP policies.

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That would be only the second time the LDP has lost its grip on government since it was founded in 1955.

“Every one I talk to has that feeling — they aren’t sure it’s really going to happen because they thought it would happen before,” said Steven Reed, a political scientist at Chuo University who has been analysing Japanese politics for decades. “A lot of people predicted based on hope, and that’s not a particularly good variable for predictions.”

Those with long memories can’t help but recall the only other time the LDP lost power, when heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa and dozens of other lawmakers bolted the party in 1993 and voted in favour of a no-confidence motion against then-premier Kiichi Miyazawa, triggering a political quake that led to the formation of a multiparty, anti-LDP coalition under the telegenic Morihiro Hosokawa.

Hosokawa entranced a public more accustomed to staid, dark-suited and often inarticulate leaders with his media-savvy ways — striding before cameras at an international leaders’ summit with a white scarf around his neck, using a teleprompter at news conferences — and promising to cut the bureaucratic red-tape that critics said was strangling the world’s second-biggest economy.

HOSOKAWA

Eight months later, though, proponents of change watched in dismay as haggling in Hosokawa’s eight-party coalition and talk of scandal prompted Hosokawa to step down. Two months after that, the LDP returned to power in an odd-couple alliance with a Socialist premier at the top.

“There was a feeling then that this would work,” Reed said of the mood when Hosokawa took power. “The problem was, the LDP lost, but nobody won … You need an alternative, and building an alternative is not that easy.”

Corruption, policy missteps and the fraying of a once-mighty political machine underminded the LDP’s support in ensuing years but the ever-adaptable party stayed in power through coalitions.

And when its days appeared numbered under the wildly unpopular prime minister Yoshiro Mori, the LDP turned in 2001 –albeit reluctantly — to the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi, a wavy-haired maverick with a knack for sound bites, to revive its fortunes by staging a battle against his own party’s hide-bound ways under a slogan of reform.

Koizumi’s “magic” saved the party for another five years, and he led the LDP to a massive election victory in 2005. But his three successors presided over declining support rates as they stumbled over policies and personnel and failed to connect with voters.

Now smouldering voter anger — more of a slow burn against the LDP than feverish enthusiasm for the opposition Democrats — finally looks set to turn out the LDP, as a wary electorate prepares to give change a chance — even if they’re not sure that the new crew can do much better.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Issei Kato (top)

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