Less than an Earthquake

July 20, 1993

The Japanese voted Sunday for the kind of pro-business government they have long had, but for cleansing it of corruption. Whether that can be done, or whether what disgusts them is the opposite side of the coin they cherish, is not clear.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled in majority for 38 years, will go on governing, either as dominant in a coalition or as a minority government. The intense bargaining among parties to produce a government will resemble the bargaining among factions of the LDP that formerly decided such matters. If fundamental change was ordained at the polls, it was only as the first cracks in a long process. The next Japanese government will largely resemble the last.

The LDP won 223 of the 511 seats in the lower house of parliament, just four fewer than the number held, after defections, on the day before the election. It was far fewer than the 275 the Liberal Democrats won in 1990. The five opposition parties dedicated to chucking the LDP out of power won 195 seats. That includes the 70 Socialists, down from 136 three years ago, and 103 in three new parties made up largely of LDP defectors. These proclaimed ethical rather than policy differences from the Liberal Democrats, and are probably available for coalition.

The regime that will emerge will be more capitalist and pro-American on security issues than ever. But it will be fragile, susceptible to breakup when some party or faction chooses. It will almost certainly give lip service to the goals of reducing trade surpluses and opening the Japanese market to foreign competition. But it will have great difficulty making real concessions that trod on the toes of some Japanese interest, be it agricultural, commercial, industrial or civil service.

The low turnout reflected Japanese disillusion with politics combined with fear of drastic new policies. The unprecedented 134 first-time winners, quite a few in their 20s and 30s, suggested a generational shift in politics that may prove more important than the partisan numbers.

The Japanese voted for change but also for stability. The two, in terms of the real issues in Japan, are pretty antithetical. The mood of disgust with scandal was tempered by the fear, hammered home by LDP campaigners, of endangering Japan's secret of wealth creation in a time of recession. The biggest lesson to the LDP is that if it doesn't clean up its act after this warning, the voters may really shear it from power next time out. But that was the lesson of the last election, too, and the LDP didn't learn.

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