September 13, 2005

LDP Victory in Japanese Election

The Liberal Democratic Party strengthened its majority in the elections for the lower house from 249 to 296. The majority needed is 241. Along with the Komeito Party, their centrist-Buddhist partner, the LDP's ruling coalition is up to over two-thirds of the lower house. The head of the Democratic Party, the presumptive opposition party, admitted defeat and resigned.

Results?

Well, Japan isn't really a two-party or multi-party state at this point. Of course, that's a very narrow, Western-focused way of looking at the situation since the LDP itself is split into at least half a dozen major factions and the views of minority parties are regularly taken into account. People are free to vote as they wish and elections are fair, it's just that the LDP has won all but a few elections since the 1950s. It lost in the 1990s a few times and it looked like Japan would have several competitive parties but the multi-party factionalism outside the LDP was less capable of ruling than the single-party factionalism inside the LDP. It's also important to remember that Japanese politics is incredibly non-ideological compared to other liberal democracies, and except for Ichiro Ozawa (in the most superficial comparison, he's Japan's Reagan or Thatcher). I'd say Japan's democracy is just fine, if - like all things Japan - different from everyone else.

Beyond that, this is another validation of Koizumi. One of Japan's most charismatic politicians, possibly their most charismatic Prime Minister ever, his popularity is still strong. This is a vbalidation of him because the election was a fight between Koizumi and his internal LDP opponents. He ran candidates against some LDP rebels and Koizumi's candidates all won. Koizumi is still going strong.

Policy-wise, this was a victory for Koizumi's fight to privatize Japan Post. He lost a vote to privatize the world's largest financial institution when members of the LDP went against it. He revoked LDP support for these party members (even in the upper house) and called a snap election for the lower house. A month later, he gets a big win and against the rebels. The meaning is clear: voters support his plan to privatize the postal finances.

Of course, it would be nice if he could go further in liberalizing the economy, which is still a structural mess with most of the burdens of state socialism - inefficiencies everywhere, weak companies and weak business models protected, bad loans forgiven or covered, and good businesses and hard workers forced to prop up the bad ones through the economic design. Beyond that, the government exercises enormous influence, de facto and de jure, on the economy. Still, at least privatizing Japan Post is something.

A lot of analysts in the US are looking at it from the US foreign policy standpoint and what it means for Bush and Iraq. That's fair for US media to drive it back home, but the election wasn't really about that. Just like with the UK and Australia, a good US ally and supporter of the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan was reelected because he was a good politician who was good on the other issues. Iraq was not what won this for Koizumi and it probably wouldn't have lost it for him. Iraq just wasn't an issue in this election, and if Iraq were a defining moment of these elections then we'd probably see PM Kennedy (UK), PM Latham (Australia) and a Koizumi defeat today.

It's a good thing for Bush and his Iraq policy that his allies are reelected (save Aznar in Spain) but let's not confuse that with any sort of specific mandate for the policy. If anything, it's simply a message that foreign feelings about Iraq are insufficient to shoot down an otherwise decent PM.

But the best part of the Japanese election is that a difficult reform is being pursued to help the Japanese economy, and that reform is being met openly by the voters. Best of luck to Japan in liberalizing with the LDP government.

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