Sat, Sep 10, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Japanese vote promises more of the same

Incumbent Prime Minister Koizumi looks set to win the snap election, but the campaign has exposed several flaws in Japan's democratic system

By Norimitsu Onishi  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

The Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan nearly continuously for half a century, appears headed for another victory in Sunday's general election -- a big one, if polls are correct.

And this will delay, again, the start of a new political era in which power is transferred regularly from one party to another, as it is in other democracies.

Japan's democracy is East Asia's oldest, but its ruling party has held power almost as long as the Communist parties in China and North Korea. Younger democracies in South Korea and Taiwan have already experienced changes in ruling parties, and the underpinnings of democracies, from vibrant civil societies to strong, independent media, appear to be flourishing there more than they are here.

Since calling an early election last month, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has shrewdly refashioned the image of the Liberal Democrats into the party of reform by fielding telegenic women as candidates and painting opponents of his signature postal privatization bill as reactionaries. The main opposition Democratic Party, whose gains in recent years now face erosion, has looked on helplessly.

In the past, when issues were rarely raised in campaigns, politicians ran simply by promising favors to supporters, said Masayasu Kitagawa, a former Liberal Democratic lawmaker, independent governor of Mie prefecture and now a professor at Waseda University.

"The relationship was that of patron and client," Kitagawa said. "This was not actually democracy, but rather the opposite of democracy."

To encourage political accountability and voter awareness, Kitagawa has been the leading proponent of election "manifestos" detailing parties' agendas. The word and concept was little understood in the general election two years ago, but it has taken root this time, with both main parties proffering their manifestos.

"I'd be satisfied if the introduction of manifestos made Japanese realize that what they had believed to be democracy was an illusion," he said.

The illusion was formed in 1955 with the foundation of the Liberal Democratic Party, which focused single-mindedly on turning Japan into an economic power. With strong support from the US and the powerful bureaucracy, as well as effective pork-barrel politics, the party's grip on power went unshaken for decades.

Internal factions vied for power, but decisions were made and some prime ministers even chosen in backroom deals. Because of the Cold War and Japan's military dependence on the US, the longtime opposition, the Socialists, were never taken seriously.

Voters feared that "the friendly Japan-US relationship would be destroyed and Japan would become poor once more if the LDP government collapsed and the Socialists came to power," said Eiji Oguma, an associate professor of policy management at Keio University.

A split inside the party led to a 10-month ouster from power in 1993. During that brief period, however, a coalition of minor parties pushed through far-reaching reforms -- including changing multi-seat districts into single-seat ones -- that would eventually weaken the dominance of the Liberal Democrats.

The present main opposition Democratic Party, which was formed in 1998, has been gaining voters in recent years, especially in urban areas. But the half-century rule by a single party has stunted the growth of Japanese democracy, experts say, and its effects are still being felt today.

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