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Japanese Election - Just a Blip, or a Realignment?

by wu ming Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 10:55:33 AM EST

For the first time since 1955 (and really, for the first time ever, since the pre-'55 House of Councillors was dominated by the royalist right), the Democratic Party, a left-leaning party, won control of Japan's House of Councillors, displacing the Liberal Democratic Party (which, ironically, is neither liberal nor democratic in ideology) that had ruled the chamber uninterrupted in the postwar period since the 1955 elections. Also of note is that the vote totals for the parties on the left - Democratic Party, Japanese Communist Party, Social Democratic Party - added up to a majority, which has never happened in any election in Japanese history that I know of. While the lower house of the Diet was once controlled by a coalition government with a Socialist Prime Minister from 1993-94, it was a coalition of parties from all over the political spectrum.

Reasons for the LDP's loss include widespread opposition to Japan's participation (however limited) in the occupation in Iraq, and upset with Prime Minister Abe's policy proposals to amend Japan's pacifist Constitution and to teach "patriotic" subjects in the public school system, both of which are key issues for the Japanese extreme right, in that war and patriotic indoctrination were two foundations of the prewar fascist status quo ante.  For years, the LDP has murmured about such things (or, more accurately, let the crazies in the vans with loudspeakers breach the subject while leaving it officially vague), but the voters tended to reelect them anyways for decades because they delivered the bacon on domestic pork while the economy boomed. So what happened this time?

From the diaries - whataboutbob

I suspect that one of the biggest reasons for the Democratic Party's victory had to do with the shift of Japanese rural voters from the LDP, as a result of ex-PM Koizumi's strong but ultimately ineffectual push to privatize the postal system in the service of neoliberal "reform." Rural voters were stalwart LDP voters for years, but when Koizumi tried to sacrifice the postal system and projects that benefitted rural voters, they crossed over and threw the upper house to the left in a rejection of neoliberal economics. If you read between the lines in the Forbes report on the election, and wade through the predictions of Japanese economic decline, you can see that the international investors are aware of what just happened:

The new power balance is expected to lead to a general adjustment of the LDP's pro-business attitude and policies to accommodate the opposition's concern with helping rural dwellers who are being left behind in Japan's current economic recovery, thus helping narrow the widening income gaps. Enthusiasm, or the political will, to push for further deregulation and tax reform measures is widely expected to be suppressed. The immediate causality would be a proposal to pass a controversial consumption tax rate hike.

While it's far from a  Chavez, Lula or Morales-style radical pushback against the neoliberal drive to privatize government and socialize costs, if this sticks it could still be a tidal shift in Japanese politics. The next House of Representatives election should make things clearer, although I suspect Abe will be hesitant to call a snap election anytime soon, given his refusal to step down after the LDP's election defeat. If the Democratic Party takes the lower house by a similar margin, and the rural voters stay on the left, Japan could very well be headed towards a 2 party system in deed as well as name, with a ruling farmer-labor-middle class liberal coalition in the lead.

Bush's allies in war and pirate economics Aznar, Berlusconi, Blair and Koizumi are all off the political stage now, which leaves Howard in Australia, Harper in Canada, Merkel in Germany, Sarkozy in France and Olmert in Israel. With any luck, America will follow in the Japanese voters' footsteps and toss the corporate-friendly hawks out on their ear come 2008, and we'll get some traction to start rolling back the neoliberal "free trade" piracy that passes for economic policy these days.

i was surprised to not see the postal "reform" mentioned in most of the coverage, but then it's hardly news that the financial press has a vested interest in obscuring discontent with neoliberalism.
by wu ming on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 05:51:49 AM EST
At the moment any set back to the freemarket consensus is a good thing.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 06:01:13 AM EST
The next (scheduled) election for the House of Representatives is in 2009, right?
That's two years away; so Abe still has some time for a course correction.
Nevertheless, his response thus far seems to be of the Bush variety (that is, "I'm right; the voters are wrong"); if he insists on going forward with an agenda the electorate clearly has rejected, I reckon things will get as bloody for the LDP in the lower house as it was in the upper house this past Sunday...

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 06:09:54 AM EST
Of course, the LDP can try to pull off what the UMP has done in France : have a rising star lead it to the 2009 elections, claiming he'll be breaking away from his party's traditions.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 06:34:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Though that would require Abe to step aside for the good of his party, and what little I know of the guy, he doesn't seem to be the type...an in-party revolt or attempt to ouster Abe could potentially cripple the LDP for the campaign season.
Without claiming any sort of expertise in the dynamics of Japanese politics, it seems to me the LDP lives or dies with the actions of Abe.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 06:40:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That keeps getting mentioned in the US too, for the Republican Party, but I just don't see it.

Sarko is an historical accident imho, it is very very difficult to stay within the bounds of acceptible of the many constituent groups on the right while at the same time having the bona fides of a true outsider for very long. Eventually, the stench of association with those constituent groups, which by dint of being on the right are almost necessarily associated with the neo-liberal establishment (or pariahs, like the FN) rubs off on the erstwhile outsider, who no longer remains an outsider. Witness John McCain.

If they stay outside the neo-liberal establishment mainstream, they usually crash and burn brightly, like Boulanger, largely because they are outside that establishment and therefore are not sustainable for any period of time. Vox populi can be duped for awhile, but it takes money, resources and control of the means of communications to keep them duped for any length beyond a political season or two.

I think the Sarko phenomenon is a fluke; it takes a very improbably peculiar personality to pull that off, which he undoubtedly has a little bit of. I'm guessing it will wear off - either he does become associated with the corrupt establishment currently pushing neo-liberalism in France and by consequence falls in the eyes of vox populi, or he maintains his indepedance and eventually loses the establishment. (Seeing his strike proposals makes it appear as though he has in fact chosen sides...)

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 09:37:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure Sarkozy ever had the bonafides of a true outsider - he only had the media appearence. Bayrou had it, Royal almost had it too. Neither were actually outsiders. Duping the vox populi is done with the media (which he has in his pockets) ; the establishement never saw Sarkozy as an outsider (can the mayor of Neuilly be an outsider, anyway ?).

Don't forget that a large share of the French establishement haven't got many problems with the far right ; Pasqua was mayor of Neuilly before Sarkozy.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 10:13:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
He might not really have this bona fides properly, but he is seen to have it by a large segment of the voting public, I'm thinking older and especially among the same type of indépendants/forains/artisans et c. who'd been drawn to Le Pen and who would have, had it been a different candidate than Sarko for the UMP, stuck with him this time around.

I know anecdotally that in my family circle just about everyone was taken in. Even longtime left voters, for example, the father of the one who did my procuration, whose father had been long-time socialist mayor of a small town between Marseille and Toulon, voted something other than PS for the first time in his life - detests the FN, profession liberale (medicin) and all that.  Ditto my wife's family, in fact, I remember having a convo with her mother just before the 2nd round where she's asking me what's wrong with Sarko, so I go down the list, and finally I get to who he would name as PM, and that seemed to have worked but I imagine she turned in the same ballot anyway. Sarko yes, Fillon not so much, as the subsequent legislatives showed.

My point is that, given where he is going fiscally and legislatively, he's going to lose a lot of these people, probably the same who didn't think much of what Borloo was leaking, because his bona fides as an outsider will be shown to have been utter bullshit. Enough people believed it the first time around but not the next time, five years is too long before the bullshit starts to smell.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 10:43:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 10:55:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Specifically, Newt Gingrich (shameless diary plug) seems to think a Sarkozyesque victory is possible for the Republicans.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 03:41:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep, works just like history: first time as a tragedy, second time as a farce.
(Sorry, couldn't resist)
by Bernard (bernard) on Wed Aug 1st, 2007 at 04:33:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
but it appears that he may have left abe with the bill.
by wu ming on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 11:01:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The fact that Abe seems to be more openly rightist than Koizumi probably didn't help, either.

At least where I am, people seem so completely detached from politics that it takes something really visible to get their attention at all, and Abe's books (I think one of them was "To a Beautiful Country" or something along those lines, and from the reports I've heard it seems to be another tract on the uniqueness and superiority of the Japanese), and high-profile nationalist moves may just have done that.

Despite the high profile of the black-bus folk, they don't really seem to have all that much support.  Then again, ultra-nationalists probably wouldn't spend much time talking to me, so I may be entirely wrong on this point.

by Zwackus on Thu Aug 2nd, 2007 at 12:28:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
have a rising star lead it to the 2009 elections, claiming he'll be breaking away from his party's traditions.

What about someone with real outsider history? From what I know of him, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara could be the ideal (hard-)right-wing candidate. Any recent news on his popularity?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Aug 1st, 2007 at 04:19:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The interesting thing about that quotation is this thought: suppose Howard had retired gracefully in April 2006 and were now the back-bench Member for Bennelong, campaigning for the election of a Liberal successor in that seat whose name, of course, would now have become known. In that circumstance the Shanahan opinion would now look quite reasonable.

It would even appear to be an impartial assessment.

Instead this is the situation in which Howard and his party now find themselves.

In the opinion of several observers (including myself) the Liberal Party at the federal level now has only one senior figure with any credibility, the Treasurer, Peter Costello.

And how does the party treat him? Essentially they have put him down at every opportunity. While he is sure to be their next leader, he will, very probably, never be prime minister.

It is a fact of Australian federal political history that the first leader of the opposition after the electoral defeat of a government has never become prime minister. Or rather, not since the early years of Federation.

So the fate of Costello is that he will be the next leader of the opposition, will contest one election from that position and lose. He will then leave politics and make very good money in business. The history books will record Costello as the most successful minister who never became prime minister. The Liberal Party will be recorded as having handed to Costello the poisoned chalice.

The vanity, malice and spite of Howard will have prevailed over common sense. Why is that so?

Howard should have had good sense to go gracefully

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 10:19:45 AM EST
I always take as a good sign anytime an election moves an elected Parliament or Congress Left! Way to go Japan...and setting new precedents on the way!! (And thanks for writing this up, wu ming!)

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 10:53:41 AM EST
Thanks for this Wu Ming. Out of curiosity, where does the name Liberal Democratic Party come from?
by desmoulins (gsb6@lycos.com) on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 12:43:24 PM EST
there is very little direct continuity in prewar and postwar parties, since by the 30s (if not long before) most of the socialists were either underground or in jail (although labor unions existed and struck repeatedly during the war) and most corporate-friendly liberal parties were either dissolved or lumnped into a 'unity party' after the military junta of the 1930s consolidated power.

after the end of the second world war, americans let the communists and socialists out of prison and threw prominent supporters of the prior regime (politicians and industrialists alike) into jail or banned them from politics, and so the left did fairly well for a while, winning a majority from 47-48. the right was splintered into several parties, among them the liberal party and the democratic party.

after 1950, the communist victory in the chinese civil war, the onset of the korean war, the red scare in the US and the general success of the japanese left at organizing strikes led to the "reverse course," where the american occupation essentially let the fascists out of prison and put some of the communists back in. the americans leaned on the japanese right to merge the two bigger parties on the right, the liberal party and the democratic party. after the 1955 election, that party more or less has run the country, either outright or in coialition government, with the exception of the lower house in 1993-1994, and in the upper house just now.

i don't know how they chose 'democratic' as a name for a bunch of old rightists, but 'liberal' was in the sort of european sense of the word, advocating a laissez faire economic policy, meant in contrast to the socialism of the labor parties.

by wu ming on Tue Jul 31st, 2007 at 01:42:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this; I hope tuasfair, bruno-ken and Zwackus will add to it.

Some notes:

While I'd be happy if the neoliberal, Iraq war, and nationalism issues would be the primary ones in LDP's defeats, my impression is that while it started with postal reform, a series of scandals were number one. Including two corrupt agriculture ministers in succession, another that explicitely called women child-bearing machines (I suspect some female voters finally had enough), the strange case of a defense minister who used to attack the USA (even deviating from the government's pro-US line on Iraq) but then fell after justifying the bombing of Nagasaki as necessary to end the war.

I think (and hope) Japan doesn't become a two-party system, but stays with more parties, even if potential main coalition partners increase only from one to two.

I wouldn't class Lula's government line as radical pushback, not at all, though it is true that neocons hoped in vain that his market-friendly social democracy can be influenced to oppose Chavez et al.

I also wouldn't list Merkel alongside Howard, Harper et al, that's a more complex situation. Merkel is an Atlanticist, and often appeases a strong pro-neocon faction within her party, but can also oppose the US  and some market policies (Sarko too, though that seems to be more theatrics than policy).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Aug 1st, 2007 at 04:16:47 AM EST
i hesitated with both sarkozy and merkel, for those reasons. agreed that the nationalism issues weren't what tipped it, although i would classify the postal reform as overty neoliberal, and suspect that that was what tipped the scales, given the rural seats flipping to the DP.
by wu ming on Wed Aug 1st, 2007 at 02:14:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One would have to agree about the ministers.  Abe made one boneheaded move after another in that regard.

Still, though, the increasingly obvious concessions to the far-right on issues of "national pride" and whatnot have been really, REALLY visible.  That was the point of them, really.  Abe seemed to be pushing the reactionary line across the board.  Unsurprisingly, given how centralized the educational system is, his policies were felt even in my local school board.  There is a movement afoot to lengthen the school year and re-instate Saturday public schools, and to de-emphasize English education - undoing the educational reforms of the early 90's that many on the right have always thought to be too liberal.

However, all that is vague impressions.  What I have heard people talk about explicitly, and with as much discontent and anger as I ever hear from a Japanese person, is the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the death of what was widely perceived to be an equal society.  A lot of people are REALLY unhappy about that, even in a relatively prosperous region like mine.  I'd never expected in a million years for this discontent to actually translate into electoral results, because it always seemed as if everyone was just resigned to this process.  Looks like I may have been wrong.

My vague impression is that he was thinking that it's time to take this stuff out of the closet, to start pushing for a radical political realignment to the right, but this election seemed to prove him wrong.

by Zwackus on Thu Aug 2nd, 2007 at 12:39:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
so how do you think this will affect Abe's efforts to move the Japanese Defense Forces from a purely defensive mission?
by zoe on Wed Aug 1st, 2007 at 03:15:17 PM EST
This is very informative. Thank you, wu ming.

Can you write about the connection between the postal privatization and rural voters?  I don´t get it, at the moment.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Wed Aug 1st, 2007 at 04:05:13 PM EST
While I am hardly an expert on this topic, I think I have an understanding of the basics.

The Japan Post is both a post office and a bank, one of the very few truly national consumer banks in the country.  As a savings bank, it has a lot of money, and as a government institution, that money has been available as a fund for government projects.  The Japanese government has long been fond of infrastructure projects, many of them worthwhile (like the Shinkansen), but many of them extravagant (like the Shinjuku Circular Expressway, for which they are digging parallel 12-meter wide tunnels 30m underground, for use as a freeway, and in the process of building they have erected 20 story tall pylons in the center of Yamate-dori), and some just bizarre, like the elevated corkscrew highway on Route 140 in Otaki.

Worthwhile or not, this infrastructure does contribute quite a bit to the economies of rural areas, many of which have had little to go on with the contraction of low-intensity agriculture in the mountains, the death of Japanese silk production, etc.

So, their concern over the demise of the Postal Banking System as a government construction fund is understandable.

by Zwackus on Thu Aug 2nd, 2007 at 12:57:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you, Zwackus.  I didn´t know the banking connection and now it makes more sense.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Thu Aug 2nd, 2007 at 06:25:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And thank you for asking the question, Metavision...now I understand a little more too...
by Solveig (link2ageataol.com) on Thu Aug 2nd, 2007 at 06:28:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Do we know how important was the rejection of privatization of the National Post in this major swing to the left? Koizumi had made it the number one issue of the 2005 elections which the neo-libs won by a landslide and 2 years ago isn't a very long time. Unless I am misjudging the size of rural population in Japan, it seems that other constituencies had to be involved in the take over of the upper house by the democratic party.

Anyhow, thank you wu ming, for this excellent diary.

by Fete des fous on Thu Aug 2nd, 2007 at 09:32:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you very much for this diary. Let me add a few observations:

  1. Abe has suffered seriously from his quasi-noble upbringing. He is a grandson of a prime minister (who was a war criminal as a cabinet member in 1941 and was also instrumental in running Manchuko) and son of a foreign minister. While women support his good looking youthful style (and his presumed toughness against North Korea), most men are alienated. I don't think he can recover much.

  2. Koizumi's myth has, at least partially, been debunked. His stronghold failed to elect a komeito candidate for whom he actively campaigned.

  3. Democratic Party's head Ozawa just refused to see American Ambassador who wanted to persuade him to change his opposition to Japan's support to the war on terror (whereby JSDF vessels refuel American fleet in the Indian Ocean). Now, this is supposed to be support for the Afghanistan operation and can be very tricky. I called a DPJ friend to suggest they should frame the opposition as a move to thwart America's adventure in the Persian gulf against Iran.

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Fri Aug 3rd, 2007 at 03:59:18 AM EST

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