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Saturday, Dec. 13, 2003

Not a two-party system yet

LONDON -- Is Japan becoming a "normal" parliamentary democracy with a two-party system? Commentators outside and inside Japan have suggested that the Nov. 9 general election may have fundamentally altered the balance of power in Japan and that, with the growth of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country is moving toward a "normal" two-party system. I am not convinced, although there are signs of political change in Japan.

The assumption is that a two-party system -- in which government is in the hands of one party for a number of years and then loses the confidence of the electorate to the extent that it is thrown out and the opposition party takes over -- is the normal situation in a parliamentary democracy. This certainly describes politics at present in Britain, the United States and some European democracies. But in others there may be a number of different parties, and government may be operated by a coalition.

In Britain the Liberal Democrats are a significant third party, and it does not follow that a two-party system is either "normal" or necessary for the effective operation of a parliamentary democracy.

More important is a fair and equal electoral system and the existence of parties with distinctive policies. In Japan the electoral procedures are generally fair and there does not seem to be much electoral corruption, but the Japanese electorate remains seriously unbalanced with votes in rural districts in some cases still being worth twice or more than those in urban districts.

This means that undue influence on government policies is exercised by rural organizations, often to the detriment of the overall national interest. Unless and until the system is reformed it will be very difficult to carry through the sort of wide-ranging economic and political reforms needed in Japan to meet the challenges facing a developed economy in the 21st century.

It is also far from clear that the policies of the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, and the Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ, are sufficiently distinctive to produce a real two-party system. Both parties issued manifestos at the last election, but many of the promises or undertakings in the manifestos were either vague or, when they were specific, clearly designed as vote-catchers.

The DPJ's call for ending road tolls is one such populist proposal. Apart from the revenue implications, the DPJ seems to have ignored the implications for traffic congestion and environmental protection. Even in Britain, which has never had tolls on its expressways, a congestion charge has had to be brought in to reduce traffic in central London. Other cities in Britain are either introducing or considering the introduction of similar measures.

Whether to revise Japan's Constitution appeared to be a theme dividing the two parties, but in the past, Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the former Liberal Party (before its merger with the DPJ), was probably more in favor of a wide-scale revision than even the more rightwing members of the LDP.

The division between the two parties over sending members of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq was superficially a clear one, but in their criticism of the Americans, the Democrats seem to have been responding to populist pressures without thinking through how to deal with U.S. concerns and the implications of a quarrel for the defense of Japan.

A fundamental problem is that a significant number of DPJ members were originally members of the LDP. Their defection seems to have arisen as much from a failure to achieve power within the LDP as from strong ideological differences. It cannot be said that the LDP necessarily represents conservatives and the DPJ opposition, left-of-center views. The social democrats who remained within the DPJ have been reduced to a weak rump.

Despite Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's attacks on factionalism, the LDP remains a collection of factions that look toward factional leaders for money and influence. It would be simple if the LDP could be divided into pro and antireform groups, but this is not possible. Nor is it possible to affirm categorically that the DPJ is firmly in favor of all the fundamental reforms that the economy requires.

No one in either party would, of course, dare to declare publicly their opposition to change and reform, but when it comes down to particular issues almost every Japanese politician finds reasons why a particular measure that is disliked by either him or the lobby groups that fund him should be rejected. The attitude to reform in both main parties can be summed up by the Japanese phrase "ron sansei, kakuron hantai" ("we agree with the general proposition, but we are opposed to particular measures!").

There is no point in arguing about what might have been, but some observers felt that it was a pity that Koizumi was not forced by the electorate to divide the LDP and form a coalition with real reformist elements in the Democratic Party. This would at least have resulted in an ideological division and there would then have been movement toward a real two-party system. But the LDP had the sense in the interests of their own survival not to ditch Koizumi. If it had, and if there had as a consequence been an upheaval, the LDP would have done much worse than it did in the election even on the basis of the present unequal electoral system.

The problem for Koizumi is that, if he is to carry out significant economic reforms, he has to find effective ways of neutralizing the opposition elements within his own party as well as fending off opposition attacks. This makes it more likely that reforms will continue to be emasculated and Japan will continue to have a relatively weak government.

The opposition has benefited from electoral disillusionment with the LDP old guard, but have yet to espouse a set of convincing alternative policies that appeal to the electorate as a whole. It also needs to show that it is capable of lining up a list of experienced alternative ministers -- not just a lot of populists.

All in all, I don't think that Japan yet has a viable two-party system. Nor is Japan yet a "normal" parliamentary democracy. For this reform of the Japanese electorate to equalize rural and urban votes is a sine qua non.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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