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After half a century of stable, even boring, politics Japan has entered a more unpredictable era - with an emerging space for the growth of a new left

Shinzo Abe

The right-wing Liberal Democratic Party has just been returned to power in a stunning victory, the size of which no one predicted. Quite a turnaround for the new LDP Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was forced to resign in 2007 after only one, fairly disastrous year in office. His nationalistic rhetoric, and his desire to change the 'peace' article of the constitution, is already causing unease elsewhere in Asia.

The LDP won 300 seats in elections to House of Representatives, the lower house of the national parliament, the Diet. This in itself would be enough to govern. However, with their coalition partners - the Nichiren Buddhist-backed New Komeito party - they have the two thirds majority they need to force legislation through over the heads of the upper house, the House of Councillors (still dominated, at least until elections next spring, by the formerly governing Democratic Party).

That party now lies in ruins. It is also leaderless, following the resignation of the outgoing PM Yoshihiko Noda. It lost most of its MPs, being reduced from over 300 to just 57.

What makes this landslide so peculiar is that it is a direct reversal of four years ago, when the LDP itself lost 177 seats and was reduced to a rump of 119.

A false dawn?

After nearly half a century in power, the LDP - formed by a combination of anti-leftist parties in 1955 – had by 2009 become the permanently ruling party of a self-satisfied business and bureaucratic elite not used to answering to anyone.

Its defeat by the Democratic Party three years ago seemed at the time like a permanent alteration to the political landscape. Or that was what many hoped - particularly millions who voted for the DP as seemingly the only alternative to the LDP.

Formed out of five parties, the DP wasn’t really a break with the old (including both former ministers and prime ministers) and it wasn’t politically coherent. It was created by economic liberals and conservatives unhappy at the slow pace of reform under the LDP, combined with would-be liberals and social democrats abandoning the sinking ship of the Japan Social Democratic Party (known as the Japan Socialist Party until 1996).

However, it remains to be seen whether the LDP has merely restored the 'natural order of things' in Japanese politics. The period of non-LDP government may have been but a brief interlude, the same as the short-lived Hosokawa government of the early nineties. This was followed by the the JSP, historically Japan’s second party, going into government with the LDP (an experience which ended them as a force in Japanese politics).

It may not be so easy this time. This election may not mark a return to normal service, but could be the beginning of a period of political instability in which no government is able to maintain any stable base of support.

Business as usual

Certainly the novelty of a non-LDP government has worn off. The DP had posed as the only electoral alternative to the LDP. It was for a time, but that did not mean it was necessarily any different to it.

Two of the three prime ministers of the DPJ administration were former LDP men. The first, Yukio Hatoyama, is a fourth generation politician, the grandson of a PM and the son of a Foreign Minister. He was forced to resign by a financial scandal. He brought down with him Ichiro Ozawa, the “Godfather” of the DPJ, who himself had previously been a Secretary-General of the LDP. Prime Minister no.3 was another former LDP man.

The fact of getting through three prime ministers in three years was also symptomatic of another bane of Japanese political life, and the LDP in particular: factionalism. It has been said of the LDP that it isn’t Liberal, it isn’t Democratic and it isn’t even a party, or at least in not any normal sense of the word.

The DPJ’s handling of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters of last spring also brought it brickbats. Its response was slow and seemingly incompetent, and its reaction to the Fukushima Daichi reactor meltdown showed its leaders to be as much in the pocket of corporate interests as their erstwhile rivals.

Decades of slump

The LDP, despite its landslide victory, can hardly claim a mandate though, taking only 30% of the vote. The turnout of less than 60% of registered voters marked a fall of 10% since the last election, with the young in particular apparently staying at home.

This is in large part due to the dominant and defining feature of Japanese politics: the continuing economic crisis. Japan is entering its third recession in five years. And this is following what had seemed like the start of the recovery from the so-called Lost Decade of the 1990s.

Japan may be the third largest economy in the world, but it is one which has been stuck with little or no growth for two decades. Its financial and corporate sector is still cluttered with so-called 'zombie banks', unable to grow or to prosper, but not being put out of business either, and consumers unwilling to spend.

This whole era of crisis started more than twenty years ago when the late 80s bubble burst. The economy went into hibernation for a decade, only briefly emerging at the start of the 2000s, only to be sent back there with the Great Recession of 2008.

The medicine for the malady of free market madness of the 1980s was apparently more of the free market. Successive governments have tried repeated bouts of Keynesian stimulus, ultra-loose monetary policy and neoliberal labour market reform and privatisation, most notably pursued by the administration of the bouffant-haired Junichiro Koizumi in 2000-2006.

The result was a state which in trying to make up for the failures of the market acquired the highest debt burden in the world at more than twice the size of the GDP. Meanwhile, people who previously had many of the protections of the Japanese economic model taken away have become reluctant to spend, sucking demand out of the economy.

The highly protected, if hard working, world of the 'Salary Man', and his female equivalent the 'Office Lady', became an increasingly rare species. The young entering the labour market have found it to be a far harsher and more unstable place than their parents did.

The population’s declining economic fortunes means people have felt a lot of pain over the last two decades, but have seen precious little gain.

Dangerous rhetoric

With so little difference in the parties’ policies, and in their lack mutual of a solution to the economic downturn, nationalist tub-thumping has moved far up the political agenda.

Tension has been rising in East Asia as Japan, China and South Korea vie for control of some uninhabited islands. The nationalist furore surrounding them, and the seeming threat of a rising China, has helped feed the growth of a number of right-wing parties, in particular the far right Japan Restoration party of the Osaka governor Hashimoto. This new party, though making a breakthrough, did not do anything like as well as expected in the latest elections.

Such florid nationalist rhetoric may prove to be dangerous in a regional neighbourhood in which everyone is busily arming themselves. China’s growing ambitions are well publicised in the West. Japan, though constitutionally limited to budgeting no more than 1% of GDP on the military, is still the sixth largest spender in the world.

High hopes

The death knell of the DPJ government was the pushing through of a highly unpopular, and regressive, sales tax. In the end the party only pushed it through parliament with the help of the LDP. It was an ignominious end to an administration which started with such high hopes.

The turn of events has been remarkably similar to the experience of the Japan Socialist Party in the 1990s. The party, in permanent opposition, and out of power for decades, in 1993 formed a coalition first with an anti-LDP alliance, and then with the LDP itself. Tomiichi Murayama of the JSP became the first Socialist prime minister since 1948.

Yet the party was almost wiped out in the following election. In 1990 it won 138 seats, by 1996 this had declined to 15. In 2012 it only held seven seats fewer than the Communist Party. It is the CP which is the now the main left party which has mostly managed to maintain its vote, though down from the 12% it took in the mid-1990s.

Six million people voted for the JCP and the JSP. 18% of the workforce are in trade unions. But it is the anti-nuclear protests since the nuclear disaster last year that may be the best hope for the growth of a new left. In an era of political instability, and a much weakened LDP, despite the mistakes of the past there might finally be space emerging again for the growth of a new left able to challenge the right wing domination of politics that has lasted so long.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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