Monday, August 31, 2009

A New Government in Japan

There was a wholesale change in government yesterday in Japan, as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) went from having 300 seats to 119 in the 480-seat parliament, while the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) went from 115 to 308. This sounds less impressive when you consider that the two parties are relatively similar ideologically (the DPJ was formed by a breakaway LDP group), but more impressive when you consider that this is only the second time since WWII the LDP hasn't been in power (the first, in 1993, lasted for less than two years), the first time that the LDP was not the party with the most seats, and the first time another party has had a majority by itself, not needing to form a coalition. When viewed in the proper context, it appears to be quite a significant change. Whether it will lead to real change is hard to say, since there's just no precedent for this situation in Japan.

One thing that's important to understand about–I was going to say, Japanese politics, but maybe I should say LDP politics, since for more than fifty years they've been synonymous–is that the LDP operated by consensus, so it was hard to get anything done. Not that every last member had to approve of every bill, but all of the main power brokers had to approve; there was no pushing something through against the wishes of, say, someone who controlled sixty votes just because it could be done. They valued relationships above all else, and it was important not to show anyone else up. Also, the prime minister was often not the person who had the most power in the party, and so was often little more than a figurehead. A recent exception to this was 2001-2006 PM Junichiro Koizumi, who almost singlehandedly led the LDP to its landslide win four years ago, and so had substantial power in the LDP. After he retired, power reverted to its normal distribution among many LDP sub-groups. As for the DPJ, I suspect than even political experts here won't know exactly how power will operate in the party until they've had a chance to wield it.

The DPJ's platform was basically as follows:

1. We are not the LDP.
2. We will spend money on things you want.

My description is facetious, but not too inaccurate. The history of democracies shows that pandering works, and the DPJ went whole-hog, promising wholesale spending increases while vowing not to raise taxes or increase the debt. This approach, famously and accurately described as 'voodoo economics' by George H. W. Bush in 1980, seems to work on the same principle as the furniture store ads that promise 'no payments until January', which doubtless appeals to those to whom January is so far in the future that it will surely never arrive. This is electorally effective, at least until the deficit balloons and a stunned populace wonders how such a sound and logical plan could have failed.

The linchpin of the DPJ's platform is their promise to give parents an extra ¥26,000 per month for each child 15 or younger. This actually strikes me as a reasonable plan if increasing the population is truly a national priority; more than a few students have told me that they hesitate to have three (or even two) children due to the high costs of raising them, especially the cost of education. One problem with this plan is that for maximum effectiveness it should only apply to future children, as paying for present children will likely not cause parents to rush out a few more. Unfortunately, there are more votes to be had from current parents than from future parents. Also, if I were Japanese, I would not be rushing to procreate based on this policy, as I'd be less than confident that a future government would rescind it, and then I'd be stuck with kids I couldn't afford. They need to make it an annuity, or some other promise binding on future governments. Of course, they may not even do it at all, but this was the promise that got the most publicity.

Even though the DPJ is not that different from the LDP, this was still a big step for the Japanese population, many of whom couldn't imagine any government other than the LDP, as it had been in power for so long. (I got quite a kick out of the LDP's efforts to exploit this feeling, asserting that the DPJ wasn't 'experienced' enough to take power; by that logic, the LDP could never be removed, as no one else had any governing experience.) Better the devil you know... Still, the Japanese have taken their first tentative step away from one-party rule. It should be interesting to see what happens now.

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