End of the line for the LDP
Jul 16th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Japan has long been changing faster than its Liberal Democratic Party, which is now in terminal declineIllustration by M. Morgenstern
HIS distraught colleagues cannot forgive Taro Aso for calling a general election on August 30th, following a dismal stint as prime minister. They accuse him of setting up the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) for a landslide victory, so bringing the long rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to an abrupt and ignominious end.
Yet the question is not why the LDP’s rule looks about to end soon. Rather it is how on earth the party managed to cling on to power for so long. A once-invincible party failed to adapt to wholesale changes in the social and economic model that it was set up to manage. If its 54-year rule really does come to a halt, that fact alone will confront both party and country with wrenching change and unprecedented uncertainty.
Few things more powerfully demonstrate the inbred character of LDP-dominated politics than its family background. Mr Aso’s grandfather, Shigeru Yoshida, was the great statesman of shattered Japan’s post-war reconstruction. Yoshida’s rule came to an end in 1954 when he was unseated as prime minister by his nemesis, Ichiro Hatoyama. The next year the two men joined forces and the Liberal Party merged with the Japan Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japan’s politics ever since. The man who will bring the LDP’s rule to an end this summer is Hatoyama’s grandson, Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the DPJ. Family honour is demanding its due: for Shigeru Yoshida’s grandson, it is nobler to fall to Ichiro Hatoyama’s descendant than to succumb to mere LDP hoplites. In any case, Mr Aso knows no one can save his party now.
That is because its history runs so deep. Old Hatoyama and Yoshida formed the LDP as a bulwark against resurgent socialist parties and the political system they devised seems expressly designed to resist change. The American occupiers had anyway pushed Japan in a conservative direction as early as 1948, when the risk of communist revolution in Japan and China—to say nothing of the Soviet threat—had come to be seen as a greater peril than militarism. The Korean war reinforced these priorities, while adding an economic dimension: the United States needed Japan’s economy to be humming again to help the war effort.
Thus developed Japan’s characteristic mix of anti-communist—even anti-civic—politics with state-directed development and policy set by bureaucrats. Yoshida founded the Ministry for International Trade and Industry, MITI, whose bureaucrats were famously powerful. Trust-busting efforts were quickly wound down after the second world war. Oligopolies—in the form of the former zaibatsu conglomerates—were supported, even if they had been implicated in Japanese aggression. A man accused of war crimes became a notable post-war prime minister and Yakuza gang bosses consorted with top politicians and helped put down left-wing protests. The political and bureaucratic system was solidly made and has lasted, like so many things in Japan. But its origins, and its effects on Japan, were ultimately rotten.
In some countries—Italy, say—incestuous politics is resented, mocked or circumvented by the rest of the country. During Japan’s boom years, it seemed to be delivering the goods. Outside the radical left, most Japanese were bought off by a social contract in which politicians, bureaucrats and big business arranged the country’s economic affairs. Businesses won preferential finance and in return offered “salarymen” job guarantees and the dream of a middle-class life. But the contract could be honoured only with high rates of growth, and the oil shocks of the early 1970s put paid to these.
Perhaps this might have been the end of the LDP, but political competition had been so stifled that there was nothing to take the party’s place. Instead, the crisis of the 1970s led to a steep rise in corruption. Factional competition within the party increased. Fund-raising skills came to the fore (in Japan, like America, politicians mostly finance their own campaigns). So did the ability to fund public works in rural areas that were still the LDP’s base. Corruption cemented local baronies and for a good while won votes. Even today the late Kakuei Tanaka, an astonishingly corrupt prime minister, is more often praised than cursed.
The beginning of the end
A 19th-century Russian said that Europe’s democracies were moderated by corruption. Japan had corruption moderated by democracy. During the 1980s, the LDP managed to adapt itself somewhat to new political concerns, such as pollution and the success of issue-driven opposition figures in cities and prefectures. The party even lost power briefly in 1993 and, in 2001-06, a razzle-dazzle prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, seemed to be giving it a new lease on life.
But by the time Mr Koizumi came along, the tension had become intolerable between the change-resisting features of politics on the one hand, and the reality of profound economic and social upheaval on the other. Companies could no longer keep lifetime promises to workers yet the government failed to take over social-welfare obligations. Women wanted better work prospects yet ministers would refer to them as “breeding machines”. The demands of civic groups for more consumer protection were met grudgingly and late.
Now, the LDP has abandoned nearly all pretence at reform. Though the party has plenty of modernisers, many—notably the so-called Koizumi’s children—will be the first to be swept out on August 30th while the old guard may survive better because they have their own sources of funding and support. That the LDP is still so mired in the past shows both why its fall would be such an historic moment and why it would also be only the start of real change. The party was the keystone of a political system that has long been crumbling. To effect change means not just replacing the keystone but painstakingly rebuilding the arch.