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.