Fri, Aug 03, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Taking a lesson from Japan's polls

By Philip Yang 楊永明

The recent elections for Japan's upper house and the current debate within the US Democratic Party have shown what the face of the post-Iraq War era will be like. This will be a time of "prioritizing life and sidelining politics."

Most analysts point to three reasons for the defeat of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in last Sunday's polls -- the ruling party was ineffective, its policy was overly focused on ideology and voters have rejected the style of the LDP's old-guard Cabinet. However, the key reason was Abe's Cabinet had turned its back on people's everyday needs to embrace empty slogans and money politics. Another factor was that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Ichiro Ozawa, provided a substantial new choice.

During the campaign, the biggest issue was the scandal over lost pension records. Other unpopular issues included raising consumption taxes, a widening wealth gap and educational reforms. When Abe came to power, none of these were addressed as energetically as political issues such as pushing for constitutional amendments, strengthening the military and joining the UN Security Council.

This is why the Mainichi Shimbun said that people had said "no" to Abe's political platform, which concentrated on ideology and ignored their daily lives.

The LDP old guard and corrupt, money-driven politics also mortally wounded Abe. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Abe lacked sufficient experience when he became prime minister. He is indecisive and uses people improperly; scandals are emerging from his Cabinet on an almost daily basis and money politics have been rampant in his administration.

In addition, with the collapse of the dominance that the LDP has enjoyed since 1955, there have been several elections in which a quasi two-party political system has gradually formed.

Although there isn't much difference between the DPJ and LDP in terms of policies and personalities, it was this strategy that allowed the DPJ to take so many votes from the LDP's traditional strongholds. The DPJ is becoming a new and reliable option, a key factor influencing the future of Japanese politics and elections.

But there is more to Abe's failure than just his inability to govern and people's aversion to money politics. The main reason is Abe has failed to grasp the structural changes in Japanese society -- an aging population, a growing wealth gap, the difficult circumstances of people living in rural areas, a lack of job security and problems with the national pension system. So when Ozawa played the "prioritize life" card while Abe ignored everyday concerns, the choice for voters was already clear.

The same problems are being debated in the US. In a recent Democratic Party presidential debate, while much of the focus was on Iraq, economic questions were still most important.

Jonathan Edwards proposed his "two Americas" concept to describe the serious wealth gap in US society today. There is a rich America, he says, and a poor America. When we talk about the wealth gap, we're not talking about the richest 20 percent compared with the poorest 80 percent, nor the richest 10 percent compared with the poorest 90 percent. We are talking about the incomes of the richest 0.1 percent versus the other 99.9 percent.

Statistics from the University of California, Berkeley, show that the richest 0.01 percent of US households have an average annual income of US$20 million. The top 0.1 percent of households had an average household income in 2005 of US$5.6 million. The combined income of this top 0.1 percent is approximately equivalent to the combined income of the lower 150 million people -- about half of the US' total population of 300 million. These are the "two Americas" that Edwards is talking about, and the so-called new wealth gap.

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