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April 2000

The Future of Liberal Democratic Party Politics: Obuchi's Legacy

Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, University of Tokyo)

Prepared for the Global Communications Platform, Tokyo

The Rise of a Vacuum Prime Minister

Keizo Obuchi rose to power in summer 1998 when Ryutaro Hashimoto, his immediate predecessor, abruptly resigned from the position, taking responsibility for the less than satisfactory outcome of the election. Obuchi disappeared from power in spring 2000 when he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. On both occasions Obuchi had to face reality without much preparation. Despite these circumstances Obuchi may be assessed later to have done reasonably well. His tenure coincided with the beginning of the upturn of the economy. His policy of massive fiscal spending at a time of deep financial depression seems to have been effective and to have played a big part in economic recovery. His policy of consolidating ties with the United States and South Korea while seeking continuous engagement with China without further apology and with Russia without dropping territorial claims seems to have been favorably regarded in Japan. He also has worked vigorously not only on economic and diplomatic fronts but also in slimming administrative personnel, instituting a new social insurance scheme for those elderly in need of nursery assistance and asserting patriotism in the forms of a national flag and anthem.

His swift and massive legislation was tied closely to his approach to politics, which was very much similar to that of his two mentors Noboru Takeshita and Kakuei Tanaka. He focused on achieving intra-party factional plurality within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and a parliamentary majority without coalition partners if possible, and with partners if necessary. He formed a coalition with the Liberal Party and the Komeito Party when he saw the absolute necessity of producing a parliamentary majority. He was normally astute and adroit in conducting intra-party and parliamentary deals. He also focused on district politics. It was a very dense home-style politics in his district, writ large to the national level. His record of showing up at weddings, funerals and other gatherings in his district was legendary. In his district there were two giants, Takeo Fukuda and Yasuhiro Nakasone, both former Prime Ministers from the same party. Survival in the district was the first and utmost priority to Obuchi throughout much of his political life. Therefore, for example, he made 10-20 phone calls per day by himself whenever he saw possible political gain, met an incredible number of people at his office, and showed up at innumerable gatherings not only on weekdays but also on weekends, often with his wife. In terms of policy substance, he was open and flexible. He called himself a "shinku shusho" (an empty Prime Minister or a vacuum Prime Minister), meaning that he did not stick to serving his own interests.

Obuchi's Home Style Writ Large

The irony of his approach to politics was that conducting home-style politics at the national level meant two self-contradictions. First, pumping out fiscal policy stimuli at the district level is not too difficult to do. But pumping out fiscal policy stimuli at the national level cannot be easily done, especially when the policy aim is to reactivate the financial sector's vigor. Most financial institutions were extremely timid in lending money and thus stifling economic and entrepreneurial activities. Hence the creation of a huge indebted nation. Second, attending funerals, weddings and other gatherings in his district, the size of the electorate of which was somewhere between five hundred thousand and one million, made his district schedule more than hectic. But doing the same at the national level led him to overwork and eventually claimed his political life. This style of politics is quite normal in LDP politics. In following LDP style, he was different from Kakuei Tanaka in an important way. Kakuei Tanaka was called a computerized bulldozer, meaning that he sorted many things out by himself as if he programmed his entire operations through his computer-like brain. Obuchi called himself a vacuum cleaner, meaning that he internalizes all the dust within himself. Tanaka was an initiative-taker while Obuchi was more of a dealer-broker without his own preferences. In this sense Obuchi was a disciple of Noboru Takeshita rather than Kakuei Tanaka.

Dissonance of LDP Politics in an Era of Globalization

What is at stake transcending this difference is the survival of LDP politics and its style. It grew out of the ashes after military defeat in 1945 and amidst the heyday of the developmental state, from 1955-1974. During much of the third quarter of the 20th century the State needed agents who took care of the sentiments and interests of those who tended to be left behind. One of the agents was the LDP, which championed itself as the friend of those left behind from high economic growth, i.e., peasants, small self-employed merchants, and small self-employed manufacturers. The LDP did well in moving along with the development State in the third quarter of the 20th century. In the fourth quarter of the century the LDP did well too, albeit less so. But the efficacy of its politics has been steadily undermined. The developmental momentum of the Japanese economy was slowed down considerably and a large bulk of traditional supporters of the LDP, peasants and small merchants in particular, vanished in large numbers. Yet LDP politics kept focusing on district politics through weddings, funerals, schools and pork barrel projects (most importantly public works). One result is the long-term further weakening of LDP plurality in the National Diet. The other is the general trend of self-marginalization of national politics. In other words, the importance of national politics seems to have been reduced to a considerable degree vis-a-vis globally linked business sectors and increasingly self-sustaining non-governmental organizations.

One symbolic phenomenon related to this is the reaction of investors and speculators to Obuchi's incapacitation. On April 3, Monday, when the news broke that Obuchi was hospitalized in a coma, Japan's stock index went up by 400 points. Perhaps this can be explained mostly by economic factors. But even conceding that this is the case, one has a hard time explaining why the event did not result in falling stock prices. The space of LDP politics has been much smaller during the fourth quarter of the century when compared to that of LDP politics during the third quarter of the century. When the awe of the developmental State has disappeared and when old fashioned pork barrel politics tends to attract only those heavily dependent on state-provided subsidies, LDP politics cannot flourish.

All this is not to say that the LDP will disappear. On the contrary, the LDP will survive precisely because it is reassuring to a large number of electorates that the LDP still sees the stability and continuity of society as of utmost importance amidst the strident trend of globalization and its concomitant trend of the growing gap between rich and poor. Even if the political space of LDP-led national politics has been reduced in size somewhat, that does not mean the need for such politics has been reduced for many people. It is true that a large number of competitive firms and self-sustaining individuals are going global and do not need to be attended by public policy except for some key market rules and taxation policy, but these are few. What matters in electoral democracy is participation in elections. Those who tend to participate more are those who expect to benefit from public policy, mostly those from non-competitive, non-metropolitan, demographically sparse districts. The LDP has been strong in these sectors of society.

Relentless Globalization, Shrunk National Political Space and the Strategy of Governing Coalitions

Thus one distinguishing characteristic of contemporary politics, the relative marginalization of national political space, has been manifested clearly in Japan. This does not mean that Japanese politics needs political leadership or political reform. Rather I argue that in an increasingly globalized national political milieu successful governing parties have to focus on those left somewhat behind the tide of globalization, while naturally they have to devise ways of enhancing productivity of the State. Those negatively affected by the tide of globalization - whether it is the increased anxiety of the future or it is the semi-institutionalized unemployment - tend to loom large to politicians, while those positively affected do not necessarily seek much protection by the State. So while the narrowing of national political space has become disturbing to the governing elite, not too much can be done about globalization itself. Rather you have to stick with those who tend to be negatively affected to reassure them of the stability and continuity of society and to dispel their apprehension of the future. Instead of tackling the tide of globalization per se head on, the priority tends to be placed first of all on social policy and secondarily on symbolic agitation of cultural nationalism.

The narrowing basis of governing undermined by globalization forces makes it almost inevitable for the governing coalition to be unstable and often less than effective. Yet the governing parties are often forced to rely more than they want to on the instruments of what the old-fashioned developmental state utilized in the near past instead of more vigorously spearheading the entrepreneurial push in the globalization era. Obuchi's foremost legacy is that of LDP politics adapted to the era of globalization. It is tailored primarily to those with great apprehension about globalization. Yet the approach they adopt for coping with it is that instrument of the old-fashoned developmental State, now applied as social policy. Massive public works expenditure is meant to be social policy. It gives much needed protection and time to find ways of changing the course.

Takashi Inoguchi is professor of political science at the Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo. He writes prolifically on Japan and international affairs both in Japanese and in English. His latest work includes: American Democracy Promotion (Oxford University press, forthcoming in 2000), Japanese Foreign Policy Today (St. Martin's Press, forthcoming in 2000), International Security Management and the United Nations (United Nations University Press, 1999). He has commented on Obuchi and Mori in national newspapers as well as on CNN, CNBC, and Singapore TV.

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