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Commentary (December 20, 2005)

Is This Dawn of '2005 System'?

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

New phase could see fairer sharing of resources, sharper party differences

The year 2005 will likely go down in Japan's political history as a watershed year. What may be called a "2005 system" is shaping up in response to changes in the nation's political climate and socio-economic realities over the past 50 years.

The new system, albeit embryonic as yet, is replacing the "1955 system" that governed during the time of Japan's postwar economic development. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's stunning election victory in September apparently marked and lifted the momentum of a dawning era.

To better understand this emerging phase, one first needs to understand the phase of government from 1955, which began as the conservative camp unified into the Liberal Democratic Party in response to the unification of leftist, liberal forces into the Socialist Party of Japan.

The system was born in the Cold War climate with overtones of ideological confrontation between left and right wing camps. But it also marked the start of the seemingly permanent rule by the LDP, with the left forever doomed, resigned to the role of opposition, without the ability or genuine intent to wrest power from the LDP.

With the LDP in charge, the 1955 system accommodated highly egalitarian, welfare-state programs that sought to keep everybody well-off, correcting regional differences between urban and rural districts and between weaker sectors of the economy and stronger ones. All sorts of special accounts, subsidies, public works investment and other budgetary gimmicks, legislation, tax breaks, special government corporations and the like were devised to support this policy.

But while giving rise to rampant pork-barrel politics and unabashed protection of vested interests in the name of protecting the weak, the 1955 system basically provided the nation with universal affluence. Its success was manifest in that as many as 80% of people once regarded themselves as middle class, basking in the affluence that the postwar economic development and peace constitution brought to the nation, for which the LDP was credited.

This meant that Japanese society was neither divided by class or political orientation on the ground, if not in the abstract political ideologies and foreign policy of the government. This situation translated into the structure of the LDP which embraced a political spectrum from center-left to right.

Thus, the LDP was underdeveloped in its ideological purity and articulation. It is often said that the LDP's raison d'etre was to distribute and redistribute the wealth that kept growing thanks to the boom time of the postwar decades through to the 1980s.

But with the end of the Cold War and the economic boom, and globalization, the situation changed. And that has forced the LDP and opposition forces to adapt as well. The genius of Prime Minister Koizumi was that he perceived this change more accurately than his rival conservative politicians and capitalized on it to rise to power in the LDP. His slogan, "Destruction of the LDP," is really a call to reinvent the party to fit the current socio-economic realities in Japan.

Forces of the past

It is no surprise that Koizumi's struggle within the party has primarily been a battle with the forces of the past. That faction dates back to former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, the political genius who perfected the politics of egalitarian pursuit, replete with abusive pork-barrel politics and enormous power and influence which the faction continued to wield long after his bribery-tainted downfall. Tanaka's system was synonymous with the 1955 system in many respects.

Within the LDP, factions have competed for power, money and votes on the basis of politicians' ties with vested interests: beneficiaries of resources such as subsidies; public expenditures; legislation; tax systems; and other favorable measures. The multiseat constituency system enabled factions to compete within the LDP because more than two party candidates in the same district could be elected.

But the role of politicians, especially those of the ruling LDP, is ceasing to be as redistributors of wealth, which is scarcer than in the past. Instead, they are expected to work for a fairer sharing of limited resources and even for an equal burden of pain arising from reforms. Pork barreling is shrinking and starving the political system that used to feed on it.

The new single-seat electoral system, moreover, has resulted in a sharper profiles of political parties. This was demonstrated dramatically by the LDP's landslide victory in the September lower house elections. From here on in, how smart and skillful political leaders are, particularly the party leader, with words to win voters' hearts and minds, over handing out economic benefits, will be increasingly important.

But the problem is that it is not yet clear how the LDP will reform itself - what its bedrock values are. In the wake of the latest election results, it looks like Koizumi's party, with its spectrum of philosophy not clearly articulate yet.

If something of a 2005 system is to take shape, the LDP must take a clear position on such issues as competition, small government, deregulation, market mechanisms, and so on, that would truly echo "conservatism," as opposed to something else supposedly to be championed by the opposition, such as fairness, egalitarianism, liberalism, protection of the poor. In this sense, the opposition forces are as ambiguous as the Liberal Democrats in ideological orientation. Full-scale political realignment is still in the offing.

(Originally appeared in the December 19, 2005 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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