Raw Japan

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Watching the giants fall

August 31, 2009

Some elections count more than others, and never more than when a longstanding dominant party is sent packing. I’ve been lucky enough to witness turning points in four countries on two continents.

France, India, Italy, now Japan — all have rejected one-party dominance for the rough and tumble of alternating majorities. In each case, I was fortunate to behold history.

JAPAN-ELECTION/Japan’s election on Sunday marked the end of an era that started not long after World War Two and saw Japan rise from the ashes of defeat to a global economic power. Japan’s revival took root in¬†an iron triangle locking the Liberal Democratic Party, bureaucrats and Japanese industry.

Now the LDP is tasting the same bitter fruit as paramount parties in other countries whose voters decided a few decades in power for one party were enough. The circumstances in each country were different, but the democratic impulse was similar and the result much the same.

In 1981 Francois Mitterand became the first leftist president of France since the Fifth Republic was created in 1957. I watched as ecstatic French voters poured into the streets after Mitterrand’s victory. France then trembled as this imperious socialist did the impossible by sharing power with his Gaullist rivals.

The Indian National Congress spearheaded that nation’s independence movement and then became the dominant political party led by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Eventually¬†corruption allegations caught up with Congress and it had to yield power first to Hindu nationalists, then to a coalition of upstart leftists and regional parties.

I remember the sight of chastened ex-Congress leader P.V. Narasimha Rao standing in the dock in a Delhi court accused of corruption charges, for which he was later acquitted.

Capitalising on Cold War tensions, Italy’s Christian Democratic party was that country’s ruling party for almost 50 years until corruption allegations felled it, too, in the early 1990s. I had a ring-side seat in Milan as remnants of that catch-all party ushered in majorities alternating between the Left and the Right.

Controversies surrounding Italy’s current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, have obscured the paradox that Italy’s governments have grown in stability as the ruling majorities alternate in power.G8-SUMMIT

In each of the countries, post-War realities provided the base for a political grouping to set down roots and rule for decades.

In France, the revolving-door governments of the Fourth Republic and fear of communism gave the Gaullists a firm footing.

India’s Congress Party carried the flag of freedom and capitalised on both Cold War tensions and conflict with neighbouring Pakistan. Italy’s Christian Democrats, supported by U.S. administrations fearful of the spread of communism, were able to play the Cold War card while keeping a distance from fascists.

Now Japan’s voters have dealt a staggering blow to the LDP, an amalgam of factions which except for a few months has held power for more than half a century.

One of the more amusing moments of the election campaign came when a desperate LDP leader warned voters not to hand the opposition Democrats the chance to wield “despotic” power. This from a party that had ruled nearly uninterrupted since 1955.

I’ll leave it to the political scientists to predict whether the LDP will disintegrate in disgrace or regroup for another day at the polls. What seems certain is Japan has turned a page by embracing alternating majorities.

The shadow of World War Two has given yet more ground.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon, Alessia Pierdomenico


Most probably, LDP will regroup, but will never be the same. Some kind of alliance politics will come up. Bigger trouble will be though in long-term poilcies. There will be weaker poilitical class looking for short term gains only. Now where that will take the country is yet to be seen. In case of India, it resulted in we getting more and more dependent on USA. Japan is already in that mould for long itme, so they will have another fate.

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