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Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Unusual election full of promise

Election results are good news for Japanese politics


It may be difficult to take an interest in Japan's election last week, since many readers cannot vote. But results this time may be critically important for Japan's future as a democracy.

News photo
With the election heralding the entry of the manifesto into Japanese politics, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (top) will need to keep a close eye out for opposition DPJ leader Naoto Kan. WIRE, JAPAN TIMES PHOTOS

Basics first: Japan's legislative branch is a parliamentary system with two assemblies. Last week, the entire Lower House (the more powerful one) was up for re-election, with 480 seats contested. 240 seats plus one constitute a majority, and the party (or a coalition of parties) which can make up those numbers can form a government and choose a Cabinet.

For nearly all Japan's postwar years, the party in power has been the Liberal Democrats (LDP). This election was no exception. The LDP secured 237 seats (now 241, after absorbing a splinter conservative party, for an absolute majority). With partner Komeito ("Clean Government Party," founded by one of Japan's new religions), the ruling coalition controls 275 seats -- an apparent victory for the status quo.

But domestic pundits are heralding winds of change. The opposition (if you include candidates running under no party banner), won 205 seats, a total gain of 17. The largest party, the Democratic Party (DPJ), itself gained 40 seats (mostly from the other opposition parties -- the Communists and the Social Democrats). The ruling LDP coalition, however, lost 12 seats, despite opinion polls favoring charismatic Prime Minister Koizumi and his popular aides.

Although this election will not lead to any major government turnover, the news is that the DPJ, at 177 seats, is now clearly the number two party, and the first viable alternative to the LDP since the Socialist Party collapsed in the 1990s.

Result: Japanese politics is no longer a choice of "LDP or Anti-LDP" (whoever that may be), but clearly "LDP vs DPJ." In future, this may mean a stable two-party system with regular changes in leadership.

What brought on the DPJ's "leap forward" this time? Although gauging voter expectations and behavior is one of the softest of sciences, I will hazard some guesses:

It is not simply due to Japan's perpetual economic pain, since the regular LDP strongholds (the ruralities, such as Shikoku, Chugoku, and Hokuriku areas) remained staunchly in the fold.

Nor is it really a case of widespread voter disillusionment, for voters being jaded by politicians offering platitudes instead of policy has happened for decades.

What mattered this time was a clear policy outline from the DPJ -- called (as is) a "Manifesto." Clear, concrete, and concise, it even had timetables for policy fulfillment. This became the first election in Japan's modern history with more than just "yoroshiku's from a soundtruck.

The Manifesto helped demonstrate that the DPJ was a serious party for serious times. It certainly caught the other parties off the hop. Koizumi had to issue his own "Reform Declaration," which was just as glossy, but a bit rushed and more vague.

The LDP Declaration had incipient policy for foreigner bashing. Item 2 talked about reducing crime, and the first proposal was to halve the number of illegal foreigners in Japan.

Truth be told, the number of illegal foreigners has been dropping every year without fail since 1993.

More fallibly, there was no explanation how this policy would avoid racial profiling -- i.e. harassing people on suspicion of crimes just because they look foreign.

In contrast, the DPJ Manifesto (Item 5) talked about crime prevention, but not once mentioned foreign crime in any guise. That's more like it -- target the crimes, please. Don't promote fear of foreigners when they are almost never the perpetrators anyway.

An added incentive, the DPJ also proposed (Item 4) that foreigners be included on Japan's Residency Certificates ("juminhyo"). Finally.

This ludicrous system currently refuses to list noncitizens (who pay Residency Tax) as residents.

The point is that without some party breaking ranks and manifestoing, the Japanese public would have remained in their funk about whom to vote for. At least this way, they had something concrete to agree or disagree with.

And boy did they. Urban voters in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka clearly voted DPJ. Even some rural areas like Hokkaido, sick of being dirt-poor, bucked the traditional divide between countryside LDP porkbarrelling and city oppositioning.

One other pleasant surprise this election -- a bevy of LDP politicians involved in scandals were held accountable.

People like Matsunami (for ties to organized crime), Ohta (for calling a gang of Waseda University rapists "energetic"), and, most embarrassingly, LDP Vice President Yamasaki (for philandering), were voted out.

Finally fading are the dispiriting results where politicians indicted for corruption (or even freshly sprung from prison!) can still get re-elected.

Thanks to this election, manifestos may well appear in Japanese elections from now on. After all, policy statements are standard practice in every other developed democracy.

For that to happen, though, the DPJ has got to make good on its promises and show the electorate that their Manifesto is not merely a collation of empty promises.

The DPJ have been given a chance to set a good precedent. Let's hope they don't blow it.



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