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Monday, Dec. 1, 2003


LDP's diminishing appeal

In the Nov. 9 Lower House election, the governing Liberal Democratic Party lost 10 seats while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan gained 40. New Komeito added a few seats thanks to its cooperation in the election with the LDP, its ruling-coalition partner. The Social Democratic Party and the Japan Communist Party suffered devastating losses. Let's analyze the election results.

* First, voters began to have doubts about Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's mantra "There will be no economic recovery without structural reform." I have said all along that structural reform, or market principle-based reform, is necessary but that there should be no misstep in the process and tempo.

Koizumi's reform is flawed in its process and tempo. It is obvious that the reform unilaterally imposes pain on the underprivileged. By contrast, under Japan's World War II slogan "We shall give up our material desires until we win the war," all Japanese were supposed to equally share the pain.

The uneven distribution of pain has affected the voting pattern of not only the disadvantaged but also that of the noblesse oblige. Not a few business leaders expressed support for the DPJ. Many opposed Koizumi's reform agenda in the interest of social justice.

* Second, the DPJ drew strong public support thanks to its merger with the Liberal Party. This is reminiscent of the May 1997 British general election in which the Labour Party overwhelmed the Conservative Party, leading to the birth of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government. The big shakeup occurred when New Labour replaced Old Labour.

The New Right, which advocated market principle-driven Thatcherism, was unable to deal with major changes occurring in the 1990s. The Old Left, which supported the government-is-almighty policies of Old Labour, had the same problem. In the slow-moving economy after the oil crunch, a cradle-to-grave welfare state was impossible to maintain. British welfare programs took on a new purpose -- to minimize the number of welfare recipients.

As the best way to reduce unemployment, Blair proposed restructuring public education, which had sharply deteriorated during the Thatcher years, and improving the scholastic standards of 18-year-olds. New Labour's Third Way sought to establish a society in which nobody theoretically was excluded, while maintaining the framework of the market economy.

The new DPJ has the potential of carrying out a Japanese "third way" of market principle-based reform.

People who voted for the DPJ are likely to have welcomed the erosion of the party's leftist inclination. I am sure that many people support a positive welfare state aimed at making full use of the market's efficiency while minimizing the number of those excluded.

* Third, the LDP's appeal is diminishing visibly. Koizumi once branded the LDP's old guard as "resistance forces." He exposed the party's "old-fashioned" nature as a tactic to boost his popularity. But Koizumi's reform programs have made little headway, giving credence to the DPJ's argument that the LDP cannot be trusted with reform.

* Fourth, many LDP supporters were displeased with the LDP-New Komeito coalition. The Koizumi government would collapse without the tieup with New Komeito. The LDP did reasonably well in single-seat constituencies thanks to votes cast for its candidates by New Komeito supporters. Without those votes, the LDP would have suffered stunning losses in single-seat constituencies.

On the other hand, New Komeito, like the JCP and the SDP, would have had little chance of winning in single-seat constituencies on its own. Joining the coalition with the LDP was the party's inevitable choice for survival.

* Fifth, the Lower House election, the third since electoral reform, showed that a single-seat constituency system will inevitably bring about a two-party system. In Britain, the Liberal Democratic Party, which has a 20 percent public support rate, has won few seats under a full-fledged single-seat constituency system.

Since the election, the small New Conservative Party has been forced to disband and the SDP is likely to face the same fate eventually. The JCP saw its strength halved. Some LDP officials are likely to look at the single-seat constituency system with disfavor. I expect calls for electoral reform to be rekindled.

In the Upper House election next June, the LDP is likely to suffer further losses and the DPJ is expected to make more gains for the reasons given above.

The recent election results appear to reflect Japanese voters' tendency to feel sympathy for underdogs. Unaffiliated voters with that tendency apparently voted for DPJ candidates in single-seat constituencies and for the DPJ in proportional-representation districts after media polls midway through the campaign predicted strong gains for the LDP.

I would welcome a shift to a two-party system, but at the same time I hope that the quality of policy debates between the two major parties will improve. Toward that end, lawmakers must study policy issues more seriously.

Takamitsu Sawa, professor of economics at Kyoto University, is also the director of the university's Institute of Economic Research.

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