Japan Votes for Change but Only Small Change


When the Japanese voters went to the polls last Sunday, they sent a message. But this change was not the "historic change" that some American analysts perceive; instead it was keeping the status quo.

As a result, the new parliament, if anything, will be more conservative on most issues than its predecessor, and the short-term confusion over the future will make the Japanese bureaucracy more powerful than before. For U.S.-Japan relations, there will be no immediate change.

True, Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost its majority in the lower house of the Diet (parliament) for he first time since 1955. One month ago, the LDP held 275 seats in the Diet. After the election, it still holds 223. Yet, given the LDP's handicaps -- the worst economy in 20 years, an unpopular prime minister (who resigned after the votes were counted), seemingly endless political scandals and links with organized crime -- these loses are small.

And, the LDP remains Japan's strongest political party. It has more than three times as many members as its top competitor and is only 33 seats short of a majority.

Moreover, while the LDP lost more than 50 seats, most of the politicians who held these seats are still in the Diet. They are the politicians who left the LDP to form new parties, yet are as conservative as their former colleagues and have few real policy differences with their former colleagues.

Several of their leaders played prominent roles in the LDP. Ichiro Ozawa, one of the leaders of the Japan Renewal Party, served as secretary-general of the LDP from 1989 to 1991 and was a political protege of and heir-apparent to two disgraced Japanese politicians -- LDP kingmaker Shin Kanemaru and former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. His critics remember that as LDP chairman, Mr. Ozawa proposed various political reforms which would have increased LDP control over the political system, instead of lessening it.

His colleague, Tsutomu Hata, a former LDP minister of finance, is famous for once arguing that Japan could not import American beef because Japanese intestines are shorter.

Mr. Ozawa's main rival to become a non-LDP prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, spent 12 years in the Diet as an LDP representative and was a two-term LDP governor before forming the Japan New Party.

Because so many of these politicians left the LDP so recently, many question the depth of their conversion to the reform cause.

In addition, a quick look at the platforms of these new parties shows that they were not very specific on most issues, calling only for a vague "political reform."

Although most politicians talked about helping the Japanese consumer, Kyoji Ando, the head of the Tokyo Federation of Consumer Organizations, noted that "the details of their policies are too vague for us to know what they mean." And the positive reaction to the election results by numerous business leaders reveals that on quality-of-life issues, they believe there is almost no difference between the LDP and the new parties.

Some analysts believe that Japanese voters may have already expressed their views on this issue -- turnout at the polls was the lowest ever in the post-War era. If these new parties do not bring about change on consumer issues, Japanese analysts are already wondering whether the issue of political reform alone can sustain them beyond this election.

In fact, if there was a significant change last Sunday, it was the collapse of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP lost almost half of its 134 seats, dropping to 70. Since 1955, this leftist party was the center of Japanese political opposition, functioning as a safety valve for momentarily frustrated voters. Voting for the SDP enabled Japanese voters to oppose the LDP safely, knowing full well that the Socialist gains would never last more than one election cycle.

In the past few years, the SDP has begun to rupture as newer, more pragmatic members have moved away from the traditional anti-business, anti-middle class stances that long marginalized the Socialists. As these mavericks fought with their older, doctrinaire counterparts, the party was unable to come up with a viable election program. As a result, Japanese political analysts believe if one party truly implodes, it will be the Socialists, not the LDP.

The SDP's collapse may eventually enable one of the newer parties to become a real opposition party, if any of them can break from the policies of the LDP. Sunday's election showed that the Japanese urban voters, despite their low turnout, are willing to give these new parties a chance. Most of the gains made by these new parties came in the SDP's traditional urban strongholds.

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