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Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009

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Flower power: Yukio Hatoyama marks another DPJ win at its poll HQ on Aug. 30. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

Winning was the easy part for Hatoyama's DPJ

After generations of rule, the Liberal Democratic Party was trounced by the Democratic Party of Japan in last month's Lower House elections. What went wrong, what went right — and what now for a nation whose voters are sick of 'politics as usual'?

LDP down, but not out

How could the Liberal Democratic Party, which won the Lower House elections by a landslide in 2005, suffer such a drubbing in last month's Lower House elections?

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Counted out: Defeated Prime Minister Taro Aso (right) sits glumly with fellow Liberal Democratic Party bigwigs the day after their party's hiding in the Aug. 30 Lower House elections. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

On Aug. 30, Japanese voters voiced a collective "sayonara and good riddance" to a party that has been in power for more than half a century. This is an extraordinary turn of events that cannot solely be blamed on the unpopular, gaffe-prone Prime Minister Taro Aso, even if he is a deserving scapegoat.

The turning point in the LDP's fortunes came in June 2007. That was then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Hurricane Katrina moment, when he showed a lack of concern and contrition following the government's admission that it had lost tens of millions of pension records.

Prior to that, voters had not supported Abe's ideological initiatives on patriotic education and constitutional revision, and were flabbergasted by his quibbling over so-called comfort women and his downplaying of Japan's role in Okinawa's wartime mass suicides. However, it was not until they saw just how nonchalant he was about their pensions that they deserted the LDP in droves.

The following month they told him to take a hike. Voters handed the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a party formed just over 10 years earlier in 1996, a resounding victory in the 2007 Upper House elections. Abe tried to hang on, but could not endure being the national whipping boy and suddenly resigned in disgrace.

Maybe it is the curse of the botchan (spoiled sons), as Abe's prime ministerial successor, Yasuo Fukuda, was similarly from a blue-blood political dynasty. However, he also lasted only a year, showing no belly for political infighting as the DPJ used its control of the Upper House to stonewall legislation, finally driving him to resign in frustration.

Next to be appointed premier in the LDP's karaoke-style politics was Aso, yet another scion of a political dynasty. He was supposed to be popular, a regular guy who likes manga and, unlike the other botchan, oozed charisma. But Aso is no (former Prime Minister) Junichiro Koizumi and could not rescue his sclerotic party, instead dragging it down through his own repeated gaffes.

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Making their mark: Voters cast the die for change in the Aug. 30 elections. KYODO PHOTO

In off-the-cuff remarks on the eve of the Aug. 30 elections, he insulted young people by suggesting they should get a job and make some money before marrying — a sore point for the very people who have borne the brunt of the LDP labor-market reforms. The media also was merciless with this pugnacious leader, making him a national laughingstock for his misreading of kanji. As well, he suffered from three of his Cabinet ministers resigning under embarrassing circumstances, the most notable being Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, his close political ally, after he showed up incoherent at a press conference in Rome, provoking widespread speculation (which he denied) that he was drunk.

Nonetheless, DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa almost rescued the LDP by trying to cling to power even as he was dragging the party down due to a campaign-financing scandal swirling around him. He belatedly resigned his post in May, leaving Aso to claim the undisputed title of Japan's most unpopular and discredited party leader.

Yet what's really striking about the LDP's Aug. 30 collapse is just how poorly the DPJ campaigned and how the public never warmed to its policy agenda nor its new leader, Yukio Hatoyama — yet another botchan. Hatoyama has a charisma deficit and he too was mired in a campaign-financing scandal, but it didn't matter — the public wanted nothing more to do with the dead-enders of the LDP.

Though Aso called on voters to "stay the course," that wasn't exactly what they wanted to hear as they saw the economy spiraling downward.

Since the end of 2008, Japan's misery index has soared as unemployment, foreclosures and suicides spiked, while wages, bonuses and workers' sense of job security sagged. Campaigning on the slogan "secure society," the LDP inadvertently drew attention to its role in making jobs much less secure and also reminded people how even their pensions aren't safe under the LDP.

Polls show that voters care most about social-welfare issues, not the strong suit of the LDP. Its scaremongering about the DPJ's ability to maintain good relations with the United States and deal with North Korea did not resonate with voters much more concerned about bread-and-butter pocketbook issues and their anxieties over jobs, health care and pensions.

The LDP stayed in power so long because it had always taken care of business and convinced voters that it was the competent and responsible party. But with a public debt to GDP ratio racing toward 200 percent — the highest in the OECD — and the economy showing only tepid signs of life after a massive binge of deficit spending, the LDP seemed like a drunken sailor unable to get a grip, let alone chart a course to recovery.

As a result of all this, the DPJ scored a landslide by riding the LDP's sullied coattails — even though hardly anybody thinks its budget math adds up, or that it has policy proposals good enough to revive the economy. Winner and losers: This election was above all a referendum on reforms carried out by the LDP — and voters clearly didn't like what they have seen so far. They gave their verdict on growing income disparities and voiced anxieties about social welfare. The LDP is blamed for neoliberal structural reforms promoting deregulation and privatization that have increased risk and disparities dramatically in a society that has long tried to minimize and mitigate risk and disparities.

Labor market reforms that began incrementally under Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 1998, and gathered sweeping momentum when Koizumi was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, have produced a society of "winners" and "losers" in a country that highly values its egalitarian ideals.

The rapid economic growth from 1955-73 did not lead to the wide disparities evident in other advanced industrialized societies. The Gini coefficient, a measure of income equality, showed a high level of equality until the 1980s. People felt that they were in the same boat rowing more or less at the same pace in the same direction.

From the mid-1980s, however, disparities began to widen, becoming much more pronounced in the 1990s. Thus, even before the neoliberal reforms of the LDP, those at the lower end of Japan's income distribution were already falling further behind as Japan's relative poverty rate reached 15 percent in 2000, compared to the OECD average of 10 percent. In fact, Japan is the only OECD country in which the absolute poverty rate actually grew between 1985-2000.

So disparities certainly did not start with Koizumi's much-hyped privatization and labor-market initiatives, but they have become more prominent in the media and in political campaigns, with the LDP largely taking the blame.

Now, in a society no longer overlooking widening gaps in income, the plight of the "losers" is most definitely on the public's radar screen.

At the beginning of this year, civil-society groups set up a tent village for recently fired contract workers in Hibiya Park just across from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in central Tokyo. It was a media-savvy campaign conducted during the New Year's celebrations, and one that drew extensive coverage highlighting the downside of reform. Japan's disposable workers, laid off by the tens of thousands at the end of 2008 as a result of the global economic crisis, captured the sympathy of the nation. Yet right there in the media spotlight one clueless LDP politician, Tetsushi Sakamoto, then Parliamentary Secretary for Internal Affairs and Communications, suggested that those jobless workers lacked the proper attitude and should take responsibility for themselves, earning him a well-deserved pummeling in the media.

Widening disparities and the growing ranks of the marginalized, a trend that especially affects younger workers, is a threat to social cohesion. Through structural reforms and cuts in welfare spending, the LDP has increased risk in society, but has failed to manage it well and did not prepare for the predictable consequences.

The LDP now knows the cost of not keeping faith with the people, alienating loyal, aging constituencies who feared for their pensions, and not delivering on economic recovery or improving the safety net of government social-welfare programs aimed at ensuring that the most vulnerable in society don't fall below the poverty line. The latter, in practice, involves unemployment insurance, waivers on health insurance and copayments, and subsidies for housing, food and utilities.

Ideally, at a minimum, such a safety net in Japan would ensure that every citizen can secure housing, medical care and enough to eat, while providing vocational training and counseling for the unemployed so they can re-enter the labor force. At present, if you are deemed able to work it is hard to get welfare, even if you need it, because the assumption is that you will get a job. Meanwhile, non-full-time workers (the contract, temporary, dispatched workers) are not covered by unemployment insurance — a rather big hole in the safety net since they constitute 33 percent of the workforce.

LDP R.I.P.? The LDP will face more defections and has become a more conservative party with a much smaller constituency. It is too soon, however, to write the LDP's obituary. Its hopes for regaining power depend on a new party leader who can hold it together while redefining the party and broadening its appeal. The so-called zombie candidates who were voted out of office in their constituencies, but came back to Lower House life as proportional representation choices, will complicate the LDP's renewal. The voters told these old geezers to get lost and won't be pleased to see them still hanging around. At a time that the LDP needs fresh blood and ideas, these grizzled veterans stand in the way.

The party leadership battle later this month will signal what kind of party the LDP can become. The numbers favor the ideological conservatives from the Abe spectrum of the party, those who emphasized patriotic education, airbrushed history and constitutional revision during his tenure — issues that don't resonate with voters.

However, party interests actually dictate a more broadly appealing, moderate candidate who can refocus the party on the bread-and-butter issues that sustained its rule for so long. If the LDP can elect a new pragmatic leader later this month, and rally its various factions around an agenda of economic recovery, there is a chance it could stage a comeback if the economic crisis persists.

The Lower House election landslides of 2005 and 2009 — for the LDP and then the DPJ, respectively — show that Japan's increasingly fickle and frustrated voters are desperate for change they can believe in — and are ready to punish a party that does not deliver.


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