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Commentary (September 25, 2007)

Achieving Better Democracy Likely to Require Sweat, Tears

Difficult power shift may lie ahead with complacency-ravaged LDP on verge of losing position, but more energetic political discourse good for Japan

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center Japan and a Lecturer at Waseda University)

Sufficient amounts of blame and anger have been hurled at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following the abrupt Sept.12 announcement of his intention to step down from his party's leadership and the prime ministerial post. His resignation was not entirely unexpected, but the manner in which he made his exit appeared so miserable and dishonorable that he looked like a punch-drunk boxer in the political ring.

The shock that gripped the nation was so profound that one political editor wrote, "We should feel ashamed of having chosen such an irresponsible and feeble man as the nation's leader." A professor of political science commented that "in retrospect, it is scary that we put the nation's fate in the hands of a politician who has proven to utterly lack the competence to govern."

Just a year ago, Abe was chosen with overwhelming support to lead the Liberal Democratic Party - members of which were apparently blinded by popular sentiment that favored him for shallow reasons like his nice looks, elegant demeanor and youthfulness, along with the blessing of predecessor Junichiro Koizumi who commanded breathtaking popularity.

About the only reason the party rallied behind this politician was the expectation that he, thanks to his popularity with the public, would bring the LDP a victory in the July upper house election. The poll, of course, ended in disaster for the party. But while Abe might have proven worse than expected, the party must take responsibility for having chosen this untested and now clearly immature politician for his superficial popularity, and, moreover, for allowing him to stay on in defiance of the massive election defeat. In the end, Abe turned out to be merely an expendable outward face, and expended he was.

These days, the party and its leadership are dictated by poll ratings, elevating the power of public opinion. But while such forces tend to be equated with democracy, we must be very careful about this tendency. Despite the seeming strength of public opinion, also characterizing the recent political climate in Japan is a worrisome absence of deep, exhaustive debate on any important policy issues.

Riding coattails

True, Abe has been credited with passing key pieces of legislation like the national referendum law, upgrading the defense agency to ministry status and educational reform. These laws, however, are viewed as having been railroaded through the Diet by the ruling party on the strength of its overwhelming majority in the lower house, which was won by Koizumi in the 2005 election on the platform of postal privatization. Sufficient debate did not take place to articulate and deepen public understanding of key issues.

Abe, it may be said, was attached to Koizumi and was never clear on what to do with the former prime minister's legacies - positive and negative alike. This amounted to the greatest tragedy of his administration. Instead of truly moving forward, he tried to establish his identity by proposing vague or empty slogans like "beautiful nation" or "break from the postwar regime."

Some conservatives liked his agenda, which was not entirely bad, but it never captured the hearts and minds of the public, as they were naturally more concerned about their livelihoods than grand theoretical concepts. As serious as he was personally, Abe was horribly out of touch with public concerns.

In addition, Abe's cabinets were, more than anything else, characterized and marred by gaffes and political founding scandals. The prime minister's defending of the wrongdoers he himself appointed only served to infuriate an already disgruntled public all the more.

It all adds up to the moral and political disintegration of the LDP, which has been in power for five decades with only brief intermissions. Half jokingly, it is sometimes said that the Chinese Communist Party once tried to learn from the LDP the secret of staying in power so long. But as Lord Action, a 19th century British politician, famously wrote, "All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The LDP is by no means immune to this axiom.

Complacency stemming from the absence of serious threats to its position - that is, prospects of being replaced by an opposition party - has corrupted the party. But it has now reached the point where it can no longer take its past power base for granted, due to profound changes as a result of social and economic transition in the era of globalization.

The debacle of Abe's ceding power has thrown the party into complete disarray just as the Democratic Party of Japan - having captured a majority in the upper house in the latest election - mounts an offensive aimed at winning a majority in the more powerful lower chamber by forcing the LDP-backed prime minister to dissolve the house and call a general election.

Fuelling debate

As true change at the top appears a more realistic prospect than at any other time in postwar Japan, the political atmosphere seems to have been suddenly galvanized - a welcome development. Otherwise, for example, the special law allowing Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force to refuel foreign warships in the Indian Ocean as part of the anti-terrorist war in Afghanistan would not have been put to serious scrutiny in Diet debate. As it is, the validity of the law has already been extended three times with details of the operation withheld from the public.

Democracy in Japan has long been labeled defective because of the absence of shifts in power - illustrated by half a century of LDP domination and rule. And though the streak might be finally ending, the nation is not necessarily ready to embrace this prospect with full confidence. This is chiefly because the opposition that seems within reach of replacing the LDP - the DPJ - is entirely untested. Its real political competence is currently viewed with a great deal of skepticism by the electorate despite the landslide victory it won in the latest vote, which to a large extent reflected the public's disgust with the LDP more than positive acknowledgement of the opposition's integrity.

Nevertheless, the populace may be leaning toward the idea of giving a new party a try, depending on how quickly the LDP can reinvent itself under a new leader. And even if the transfer of power turns out to be a painful and costly transition - a distinct possibility - it would hopefully be a step toward better democracy in Japan. This, in turn, could be an unintended benefit of Abe's tragic demise.

(Originally appeared in the September 24, 2007 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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