|Streltsov Dmitry, Japan on the Threshold of Early Parliamentary Elections|
December 4 marked the official start of Japan’s campaign for elections to the house of representatives, which are scheduled for December 16. The campaign should last 12 days. More than 1000 candidates from 11 political parties will compete for 480 seats. They include both well-known parties with a long history and solid parliamentary experience (DPJ, LDP SDPJ, JCP) and new parties formed at the last moment for a single purpose: to give their members a launchpad for joining the country’s highest legislative body. The most notable of these are the Restoration Party (Ishin no Kai), which is led by the Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, and the Japan Future Party (Nippon Mirai no To), which is headed by Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada.
There are four main issues in the election:
1) How to ensure economic growth and stabilize the growing fiscal deficit, which has reached 200% of GDP;
2) What is to be done about Japan’s energy industry and its nuclear power plants in the post-Fukushima era;
3) Should Japan should join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and, if so, under what conditions;
4) How to address national security, especially given the recent increase in tensions over the Senkaku Islands and another North Korean missile launch.
In accordance with established practice, before the election campaign all of Japan’s political parties published their political manifestos, which are supposed to reflect what they stand for during the upcoming elections.
The LDP’s campaign platform has attracted the most attention. Many people expect the party to exact revenge for its crushing defeat in 2009. The LDP proposes cutting government spending in the social sector and using massive infrastructure investments to make large-scale infrastructure construction the main engine of economic growth in the country.
The LDP’s economic program involves new public debt that the Bank of Japan would have to buy, continuing the policy of ultralow interest rates on bank loans, and controlled inflation (up to 2% per year). However, many experts believe this policy entails enormous risks to the country’s monetary and financial system. Bank of Japan chairman Masaaki Shirakawa has called the LDP proposals “unrealistic.”
On energy, while recognizing the need to eliminate the country’s dependence on nuclear power, the LDP proposes that the government decide what to do with the reactors that have been shut down within three years and determine the optimum energy balance for the country over the next 10 years. Regarding participation in the TPP, LDP chairman Shinzo Abe has said only that he would oppose Japanese participation in the negotiations if it would conflict with Japan’s national interests.
On foreign policy, the manifesto fully reflects the party leadership’s nationalist views. For example, the LDP proposes amending the constitution’s Article 96 to make it easier to amend the constitution and amending Article 9 to make it possible to legitimize the status of the national armed forces for “self-defense forces;” recognize the “right of collective self-defense,” which would allow military forces to be sent out of the country without passing special legislation; permanently deploy “self-defense forces” personnel on the Senkaku Islands; and disavow the 1993 Tokyo Declaration acknowledging the forced sexual exploitation of Korean women by Japanese soldiers during World War II that then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued.
The Democratic Party also published its manifesto on November 27. Its platform addresses five areas — social security, the economy, the energy sector, foreign policy and security, and political reform. The DPJ proposes establishing a minimum pension of 70,000 yen, canceling the special health care system for people over 70 years of age, extending the tax reform, and revising the existing system of income and inheritance taxes. The DPJ’s platform regarding nuclear energy is extremely vague: It says nuclear power plants should be eliminated by 2030, but it does not spell out how to achieve that goal.
Concerning Japan’s involvement in the TPP, the DPJ’s manifesto says the country will enter the negotiations after discussing the issue in the context of the signing of a trilateral free trade agreement with China and South Korea and a comprehensive economic partnership agreement in East Asia. I should point out that the DPJ has clearly backed away from actively supporting the idea of joining the bloc, which Yoshihiko Noda addressed in his keynote speech to parliament in October.
In terms of security and foreign policy, the DPJ platform criticizes the LDP for its “hard-line posturing and xenophobia” that “can only lead the country and its people down a dangerous path” and proposes continuing the policy of “deepening” the alliance with the United States, without specifying what it means by that.
The DPJ’s election platform is almost completely lacking in specific numerical and temporal benchmarks — i.e., everything that the party “burned its fingers on” in the 2009 elections. One of the main reasons for the Democrats’ decline in popularity has been their inability to deliver on their promises to introduce child allowances, scrap highway tolls, etc. Now, the DPJ seems to have drawn the appropriate conclusions about that. However, the lack of a “roadmap” on some issues has made the DPJ platform less attractive. As the newspaper Asahi Shimbun has pointed out, it is “nothing more than a long list of promises.”
As for the Restoration Party, its platform is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it contains Toru Hashimoto’s familiar slogans: loosen the central (government) bureaucracy’s stranglehold on power, end the dependence on nuclear energy, transfer use of the consumption tax to localities, etc. It is still calling for radical constitutional reforms, including abolition of the upper house of parliament and the introduction of direct elections for the chief executive. On the other hand, the absence of specific recipes for achieving any of its goals and the deliberate ambiguity of the language used, which allows for different interpretations, are striking. The party has backed away from its radical approach regarding the need for Japan’s participation in the TPP and the immediate closure of all nuclear power stations; it believes reliance on nuclear power plants should “fade out” by 2030. Hashimoto’s supporters have softened their lack of flexibility on the issue of banning corporate donations, which make up a large part of the Restoration Party’s political funds.
The Japan Future Party is a new player on the country’s political map. As an advocate of the immediate closure of the nuclear power plants, its leader, Yukiko Kada, initially supported the Restoration Party, but he disagreed with its leader, Toru Hashimoto, who supported resuming nuclear power plant operation. Following secret talks on November 24 with Ichiro Ozawa, Kada agreed to lead the new party, which was joined by the entire membership of the People’s Life First party and such prominent political figures as former Agriculture Minister Masahiko Yamada, a Democrat, Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, and former peoples New Party head Shizuka Kamei. The party proclaimed the slogans “stop reliance on tax hikes,” “take the policy initiative away from bureaucrats,” and “diplomacy with dignity.” The Japan Future Party has been most uncompromising in its opposition to nuclear energy, involvement in the TPP, raising taxes as a means of implementing state social welfare policies, etc. Many believe that this political force, which was hastily thrown together before the elections to unite a colorful palette of politicians holding a variety of different views, is nothing more than a last chance at political survival for Ozawa, who is counting on the image of the “clean” Kada to have maximum appeal for voters.
All of the political parties are more prone to compromise on the threshold of the elections. An over-the-top show of commitment to principles risks both alienating a large part of the moderate electorate and remaining isolated, without an invitation to join the ruling coalition due to excessive radicalism. Perhaps only the Japan Future Party, which no one is yet taking seriously, is unafraid of being obstinate and is basing its election strategy on that.
All of the major parties have had a meeting of the minds regarding the main points on the electoral agenda. For example, virtually all agree that after Fukushima the country needs to gradually abandon nuclear power for its energy industry. The only difference lies in timing and methods: from the most hard-line approach of the Japan Future Party (close nuclear power plants within 10 years) to the very cautious stance taken by the Liberal Democrats, who prefer not to set deadlines. On the issue of Japan’s accession to the TPP, none of the parties, including the DPJ and Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Party, which were arguing for the idea recently, have not risked supporting it unconditionally.
The blurring of platform and ideological differences complicate the voters’ task of making an informed choice because it is much more difficult to tell where the parties disagree. It is much easier to go the traditional route — choose the person who seems more interesting, smarter, and looks better on television. Many also rely on the opinion of political commentators, who tend to become the true opinion shapers. Many are predicting that traditional voter behavior will predominate during the elections — the voters will vote not for platforms, but for specific individuals.
The parties likewise feel that ideology has not yet become a major factor motivating the electorate. Therefore, we see image-building maneuvers aimed at making the most of leaders’ personal reputations. Hence the use of the “clean” image of Kada from the Japan Future Party, as well as the Restoration Party’s deliberate positioning of Tokyo Governor Ishihara as a key figure because he outperforms Hashimoto in the ratings.
Another important factor, and one caused by the easing of antagonisms among the parties, is the difficulty and even impossibility of making any reliable political forecasts about how the elections will turn out and what the makeup of the new government will be.
It is already clear that no single political force will win a crushing victory and establish a functioning ruling bloc in parliament. Even if, as many predict, the LDP and Komeito achieve a majority in the lower house and form a government, they will again face a “skewed parliament” because they will not have a majority in the upper house, at least not before next July.
The parties prefer to speak very carefully about possible allies should political blocs form. To give voters at least at least some idea of the approximate makeup of the future ruling coalition, party leaders were asked a direct question during the public debate at the Japan National Press Club on November 30 — which parties’ platforms are closest to their own views? It is noteworthy that they tried to avoid answering the question directly. Shintaro Abe, for example, said he could not address that topic until after the elections. Only Yoshihiko Noda said the views of the Komeito Party are closest to his own.
In any case, none of the country’s main political forces (LDP, DPJ, Komeito, the Restoration Party or even the Japan Future Party) can be written off as a candidate for inclusion in the new government. The parties’ platforms are not fundamentally incompatible, and as practice has shown, they can easily be modified as needed for reasons of political expediency.
Dmitry Victorovich Streltsov is head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (University) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.
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