Japan’s election, a revolution by young “assassins”
by Pino Cazzaniga
The Democratic Party took more than 60 per cent of the seats in the Lower House. It won by going after the vote of young people and women who are now stepping in lieu of the old “barons” of traditional politics. For the Liberal Democrats, it is time for change as Taro Aso shows his greatness in defeat. The new party plans focus on people and fraternity, but some promises will be hard to keep because of the economic crisis.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The amazing victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in last sunday’s parliamentary elections, when it won more than two thirds of the seats of the Lower House, made the headlines around the world. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) instead experienced a crushing defeat after more than half a century of power, hanging onto to only 109 seats. Japanese media described the extraordinary outcome as a “bloodless revolution” and an “historic victory”.

An historic event

The election was historic for three reasons. First, it was the first time since the war that a single party got 308 seats out of 480 (64.2 per cent). Second, in this election the Japanese people showed great democratic judgment. The DPJ, a party founded only in 1998, won mainly because of a widespread desire for change. People were more likely to be unhappy with the LDP for its shortcomings than taken with the DPJ.

Surprisingly, a survey by the Asahi newspaper indicated that few Japanese were in favour of specific DPJ proposals; case in point: 83 per cent of respondents are anxious with the new ruling party’s economic policies.

Finally, the system of “hereditary candidates” appears to be at an end. For decades in postwar Japan many candidates were sons or grandsons of retiring lawmakers. This informal system of power began to decline in 2005 when then Prime Minister Ichiro Koizumi, in order to get its reform plans through parliament and punish “rebel” parliamentarians who stood in his way, called an election and replaced rebel lawmakers with young candidates he had picked and who won. These newcomers were dubbed the “assassins” by the LDP’s big wigs who had failed to secure the official endorsement of Koizumi who also party president.

Acting as his party’s chief election strategist, former DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa used the same strategy in this campaign. In all he officially endorsed 158 new candidates, including 58 women who, as harbingers of change, beat in their own ridings important LDP leaders and were dubbed by them “assassins” or, more ironically, the ‘princess corps”. With their arrival Japan’s parliament is getting a fresh transfusion of new blood and rejuvenating its image.

Cleansing and co-operation

Outgoing Prime Minister Taro Aso resigned as LDP president, humbly taking responsibility for his party’s defeat. After congratulating the winning party, he offered his party’s co-operation. This too is something new.

Speaking to NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting network, the defeated prime minister said “Our party must hold internal elections as soon as possible to pick a new leadership and start a new journey. I am to blame for the defeat.”

Party Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda who also resigned along with other top party officials apologised to voters and said the party would “solemnly accept” the defeat.

Renewing the triangular system

Breaking the “iron triangle”, the three-way alliance between LDP faction leaders, senior civil servants and industrial bosses, was one of the DPJ’s rallying cry. Yet, the day after the election many top government officials in Kasumigaseki, the district that houses Japan's public service offices, showed neither surprise nor alarm. They are well aware that rhetoric aside criticism directed at the bureaucracy was not against the system as such but at the way it operates.

Japanese ministries have not really been run by ministers but rather by top civil servants who working with top LDP leaders and industrial bosses shape public policies behind closed doors. This said, Japan’s public service still does an excellent job.

In an interview right after the election, a top civil servant in Japan’s top government department, the Finance Minister, calmly said that “it [the election] is like when the chief executive officer is changed in a company. All we have to do is follow the policy of the new boss.” In layman terms: It is one thing to choose the direction to take; it is another to run an efficient machine necessary to follow it.

Hatoyama, who will be voted in by parliament as prime minister on 16 September, is not likely to underestimate the importance of the public service.

Business, civil service and government will continue to work together but goals will be set by the prime minister and parliament.

With this in mind the DPJ president has already picked some 100 lawmakers whose task will be to supervise the civil service.

People-centred economy and politics

Most voters chose the DPJ because of it people-centred manifesto. Hatoyama said it again after his victory. “We must return to the idea of fraternity,” he said, and “put an end to unrestrained market fundamentalism”.

“We must work on policies that regenerate the ties that bring people together, that take greater account of nature and the environment, that rebuild welfare and medical systems, that provide better education and child-rearing support, and that address wealth disparities.”

This will not be easy given Japan’s current economic situation. But pledges of co-operation by the defeated LDP, the new ruling party’s alliance with the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party’s promise to offer constructive opposition are good signs in that direction.