The Party’s Over

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has ruled Japan almost uninterrupted for the past six decades. It suffered a leadership crisis through the 1990s but managed to keep power largely due to the incompetence of the opposition. In 2001, the party elected as Prime Minsiter its last best hope, a maveric fringe politician known as Junichiro Koizumi. He pushed through structural reforms, most importantly the privatization of the Post Office, the controversy over which led him to disolve the Diet and call a sudden snap election, which resulted in his party winning a record-breaking landslide in the most recent Lower House election in September 2005.


Barely a year after winning that election, Koizumi stepped down without nominating a clear successor, leaving the party to decide who would follow after him. In a three-way race between an old school conservative, a boring moderate, and a “Japanese neo-con,” the later — Shinzo Abe — was the clear popular choice. Abe had only a decade serving as a parliamentarian in the Diet and had little cabinet experience, and his election made him the youngest PM in the modern era and the first born after World War II. Abe was labeled a “Japanese neo-con” and was a nationalist who focused on his pet issues such as patriotic education and needling North Korea over abducting Japanese nationals. Although he started out very popular, he was slammed by more practical issues that affected the lifestyle of the citizenry. He was then slammed by a sleeper issue, the failure to correctly record the national pension records, and saw his popularity collapse. This resulted in the LDP losing the Upper House election to the opposition Democrats, and he spent exactly one year in office and resigned when he couldn’t handle the stress.

Abe was followed by Yasuo Fukuda, a softer, more moderate face of the LDP. But Fukuda was unable to grasp the popular mood and appeal to issues that were relevant to the voting public. Over time Fukuda faced the same problems as Abe and saw his relatively high approval rates steadily drop. Like Abe, Fukuda resigned due to the stress.

Taro Aso was an old school conservative and the eldest son from an elite family heavily entrenched in politics and business. He was the clear favorite to follow after Fukuda resigned, partially because he was seen as the best man to lead the LDP into an election. That was correct at the time. But his repeated gaffes, unpopular attempts to stimulate the economy, and inability to convince the electorate that he was competently aware of the issues has quickly resulted in his steady unpopularity. Although some LDP reformists tried to dethrone Aso before today’s election, he has survived — and despite the party’s woes, many in the ruling coalition are relieved that they finally have a leader who doesn’t cut and run from the leadership the moment

All three of these men were “LDP royalty” — each counted a former prime minister as their father or grandfather. This aspect of Japanese politics won’t immediately change if the opposition wins. DPJ party leader Yukio Hatoyama is the grandson of a prime minister, and his brother sits across the political aisle and until recently served in Aso’s cabinet.

Polls close in just a few hours at 8 p.m. local time, and the results should start to flow in immediately thereafter. If you’re in Japan and understand Japanese, NHK will provide the best coverage. If you’re not in Japan or want instant English coverage, our friends over at Transpacific Radio and Mutantfrog are teaming up with others to provide live, streaming coverage of the results as they come in, the only audio-visual media that will provide this type of live coverage in English. Those of you who are interested should be sure to tune in here.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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4 Responses to The Party’s Over

  1. Pingback: Japanese Election Coverage and Commentary | The Marmot's Hole

  2. kurt9 says:

    I don’t think any of this will matter. What the DPJ wants to do is rather tame stuff (remove the tolls from the highways, provide more money for people in school, etc.). The LDP is stuck in a rut. DJP will be forced to push for more liberalization of the economy as the work force declines and the economy remains stagnant. If they do and such liberalization is successful, they may remain in power a long time and a political re-alignment will occur. If not, or if what they do fails to produce significant growth, the DLP will reorganize, co-opt whatever DPJ did that does work, and return to power in 2-3 years.

    Some of what DPJ wants to do makes sense. They want to reconcile Japan’s wartime history with the Asian neighbors to make better relations with them. This is long overdue. They want to make high school free (this is currently not free). However, some of what they want to do does not make sense, like more government money and support for farmers (they already get enough). They need to allow the farms to consolidate as the average age of farmers is mid 60′s and many of them are retiring.

    There was a socialist prime minister around ’94 or so. Everyone made a big deal out of this at the time and nothing happened. Change comes very slowly to the Japanese. I do not expect anything major this time either.

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