July 15, 2010

July 15, 2010 | Commentary on Japan, Alliances

More political stalemate for Japan

A year ago, the Democratic Party of Japan's (DPJ) landslide victory in the Lower House election ushered in euphoric predictions of bold new policies and even a transformation of the Japanese political system. There were widespread hopes that the DPJ would break the streak of Japan's revolving door of short-lived leaders.

Instead, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's tenure has proved to be a slow motion train wreck and "Hatoyama leadership" has became an oxymoron. Indeed, the DPJ quickly showed itself to be no more competent in governing Japan than its much-derided opponent, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

After shedding its twin albatrosses of Hatoyama and DPJ general secretary Ichiro Ozawa, as well as many of its earlier campaign pledges, the DPJ hoped for a respectable showing in the July 11 Upper House election.

Instead, the electorate delivered a painful thrashing to the DPJ that may prove fatal for Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The DPJ will now be even more focused on politics than policymaking, leaving the Japanese ship of state rudderless and adrift in the troubled waters of East Asia.

Hatoyama's troubled tenure
The DPJ lost its initial strong public support after Hatoyama and Ozawa became embroiled in money scandals, tarnishing the party's reputation and undermining its claims of clean politics and transparent governance.

The prime minister was also derided for lacking a strategic vision and his frequent policy reversals. United States officials privately referred to the DPJ as "amateurs" due to the party's non-existent policymaking process and inability to make decisions.

Hatoyama's ineptitude, coupled with the DPJ abandoning several of its campaign pledges, triggered plummeting approval ratings from an increasingly cynical and embittered electorate. After Hatoyama and Ozawa resigned, the DPJ enjoyed a resurgence of public approval.

But DPJ optimism for the Upper House election proved to be short-lived since its problems went beyond Hatoyama and were instead endemic to the party's policies and processes.

That the DPJ chose Hatoyama as its first leader after its unprecedented 2009 electoral victory reflected poorly on the party and its future potential for success. Having to go to the bullpen for a relief pitcher in only the second inning of the baseball game doesn't instill confidence in the DPJ. Newly-selected Kan saw his disapproval ratings surpass his approval ratings after only one month in office, far quicker than any of his predecessors.

A year ago, it was common for Japan watchers to predict that the DPJ would gain enough seats in the July election to secure a unilateral majority; that it would no longer be reliant on coalition partners; and that by punting the leftist Socialist Democratic Party from the ruling coalition, the DPJ would adopt more centrist foreign and security policies.

Instead, the DPJ defied pollsters by doing more abysmally than even the most pessimistic prediction. The DPJ won only 44 seats, far short of its goal to retain its 54 contested seats. A year ago, expectations had been the DPJ would garner 60 or more seats, giving it a sole majority in the Upper House when combined with its 62 uncontested seats.

DPJ coalition partner the People's New Party lost all three of its contested seats, leaving it only with its three uncontested seats, giving the coalition a total of 109 seats, far short of the 122 necessary for a majority.

As a result of its underwhelming election results, the DPJ coalition can no longer ensure approval of its legislative initiatives. Although the DPJ has a majority in the more powerful Lower House, it does not have the two-thirds majority necessary to override bills rejected by the upper house. A "twisted parliament" portends even greater legislative stalemate and political gridlock.

The main opposition LDP, banished with disdain by the electorate following last year's Lower House election, rebounded with 51 seats, up from 38, for a total of 84 in the Upper House. The LDP shouldn't become complacent about its victory, however. Just as the DPJ won last year's election mainly because it wasn't the LDP, the LDP gained ground on Sunday simply because it was moderately less offensive to voters than the DPJ.

The LDP must guard against claiming vindication since it too has failed to articulate coherent alternative policies. The LDP will likely adopt the obstructionist tactics that the DPJ utilized when it was the opposition, namely blocking all legislation and then blaming its opponent for the political stalemate.

Challenges ahead
Kan already faces internal party calls for his resignation but that is unlikely before the DPJ  caucus in September. Working in Kan's favor will be the party's hesitancy to imitate the LDP's oft-criticized revolving door of prime ministers. Kan's tenure beyond September's party election is far more precarious, however, and he could still become one of Japan's shortest-ruling leaders.

The recently disgraced and exiled Ozawa may strive to make a comeback at the September party caucus. Though he remains too unpopular to return as the party leader, he will try to exercise power through a proxy candidate. He may assess that he has greater leverage because a threat by him to depart the party, along with scores of "Ozawa's children" - legislators who won in last year's election and remain beholden to him, could precipitate a collapse of the DPJ government.

The DPJ must now seek coalition partners, either in a formal power-sharing arrangement or on an ad-hoc basis to approve individual pieces of legislation. Doing so would add an additional layer of deal-making and compromising to Japanese policymaking.

During the past year, the miniscule People's New Party and SDP were able to hold the much larger DPJ hostage on both domestic and foreign policies. The need to form a coalition to secure a majority gave outsized importance to these minor parties.

The DPJ may seek to join forces with Your Party, making it the new tail that wags the political dog. Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe, however, repeated his vow not to join the ruling coalition without major changes in the DPJ party platform. Watanabe also called on Kan to dissolve the Lower House since Your Party would likely gain additional seats and leverage at the DPJ's expense.

Even before the election, the DPJ was plagued by an inability to produce - let alone implement - policies. The DPJ encompasses broadly divergent ideological factions which hinders the party's ability to achieve consensus. On domestic issues, the party is divided between those advocating populist pump-priming economic stimulus initiatives to secure an election victory and those calling for fiscal restraint to overcome Japan's burgeoning public debt.

On foreign policy, the DPJ is divided amongst those favoring a continued strong and close alliance with the US and those advocating a more independent security policy. This was encapsulated in the fierce debate over the fate of the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa. Although Hatoyama and Kan eventually affirmed the pre-existing bilateral agreement, it was done in a manner that inflamed Okinawan anger against both Tokyo and Washington.

The DPJ's election debacle will further constrain Japanese policymaking capabilities since party members will henceforth be more focused on politics than policies. Rampant speculation over the timing of Kan's departure will cause potential successors to vie for position while avoiding potentially unpopular policy stances. The DPJ's ability to deliver on promises will be severely undermined at a time when an increasingly impatient Japanese electorate is demanding results.

The Japanese political instinct will be to sacrifice Kan on the altar of expediency to have him take the fall for the DPJ's failings.

When Hatoyama was quickly replaced by Kan, the Japanese political system "worked" in the sense that it efficiently produced another leader, although without direct popular mandate. Yet, a system that results in four prime ministers in four years is flawed since it produces an assembly line of ineffective leaders.

Having leaders jump overboard at the first gust of disapproval undermines important political concepts of perseverance and enduring leadership. Nor does it instill any inclination for a Japanese leader to remain faithful to principles and ideals by resolutely enduring critical yet vacillating public opinion in order to achieve national objectives. The result of such quick capitulation by the leadership is rapidly plummeting public confidence in the individual, cumulative cynicism of the parties and system, and decreasing national influence on the world stage.

The DPJ has yet to prove it can lead and Kan is increasingly looking like yet another weak Japanese administration plagued by legislative stalemate and policy gridlock.

But in a broader sense, neither the LDP nor the DPJ have displayed the vision or ability to govern the country effectively. This does not bode well for Japan's future. With the DPJ's aura of invincibility tarnished, the LDP and DPJ are now like two punch-drunk fighters bludgeoning each other to score tactical points but unable to deliver the knock out punch. The result is a Japan unable to fix its stagnant economic and massive government debt, address growing security challenges, or play a regional leadership role.

Some analysts hope that the political tumult will eventually lead to a strategic political realignment in which the existing political parties disintegrate with new ideologically-based parties arising from their ashes. If that were to occur, it would offer the Japanese electorate a real choice between opposing political ideologies and policy objectives.

This scenario, however, would require far greater dynamism than Japan has exhibited to date. In the meantime, the two Japanese political combatants will continue to inflict considerable damage on each other, as well as the country's hopes of economic revival or international influence.

Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Japan, Alliances

First appeared in the Asia Times Online