IDSA COMMENT

Political convulsions in Japanese politics

August 3, 2009

Since the early 1950s, two factors have remained constant in Japan - the political domination of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the continuation of the Japan-US security alliance. The first factor is expected to undergo a change as the LDP is likely to give way to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the forthcoming elections for the lower House. Given this prospective political change, one might see a perceptible shift in Japan’s foreign policy, particularly its relationship with the US.

The DPJ captured power in the Upper House elections held in July 2007. If the LDP loses power in the Lower House, the DPJ will be in a dominant position to enact laws as per its manifesto, thereby bringing some change in Japan’s position on regional and global issues. The snap polls for the Lower House scheduled for 30 August, 2009 was precipitated by the LDP’s surprising defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections on 12 July, 2009 in which the DPJ won 54 seats against the LDP’s 38. Though the election was scheduled for September, Prime Minister Taro Aso advanced it by few weeks in a bid to preempt demands within the LDP for a leadership change. Aso’s strategy of calling snap polls might not sell well with Japanese voters, because of his plummeting popularity.

Indeed, at a time when the LDP’s popularity is declining, the DPJ’s popularity is on an upswing. Various opinion polls project the DPJ as the virtual successor to the LDP in governing Japan. For example, a recent opinion survey conducted by Kyodo indicated that 30.4 per cent respondents would vote for the DPJ while only 15.4 per cent preferred the ruling LDP. A previous survey by the same news agency indicated that 48.4 per cent respondents chose DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama as their “desirable Prime Minster” while only 21 per cent preferred LDP President Taro Aso.

The LDP is suffering from a leadership vacuum following Junichiro Koizumi’s departure from the political scene in September 2006. Koizumi led the LDP-New Komeito to a resounding victory in September 2005. Unfortunately, three of his successors – Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso- lacked the quality of Koizumi and failed to unify factional forces within the LDP. The failure of Koizumi’s successors in projecting a strong and inspiring leadership to effectively address a host of domestic and foreign policy issues also had a negative impact on the support base of the LDP.

Whichever party emerges as the winner in the forthcoming polls, domestic economic issues are likely to be the crucial test case in the eyes of the electorate, which will probably determine the survivability of the party in office. The immediate challenge will be how to resuscitate the Japanese economy from the global meltdown. Both the LDP and the DPJ have offered their own economic agendas to the Japanese public. The LDP’s stimulus package totaling 150 billion dollars or 3 percent of GDP has not enthused voters. On the other hand, the DPJ has offered an alternative stimulus package of 4 percent of GDP centering on payments to households in an attempt to stimulate consumption. It is not clear, however, how the money will be made available to implement their respective policies.

In the realm of foreign policy, the issue of the Japan-US alliance is likely to dominate the agenda for sometime. In the event of the DPJ capturing power, the nature of the Japan-US relationship is likely to be revisited. While the alliance relationship will remain intact, the DPJ government is likely to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that has governed the terms of the US military presence in Japan since 1960. The DPJ might ask the US for sharing the cost of US garrisons deployed in Japan. The DPJ might also demand that US troops in Okinawa, particularly at the Futenma airbase be either relocated or closed.

Another contentious issue with the US would be the renegotiation of a “secret” pact allowing US warships carrying nuclear weapons to drop anchor at Japanese ports. DPJ Prime Ministerial candidate Yokio Hatoyama recently made the statement that “Tokyo and Washington will thoroughly discuss the issue if we take the reins of government. It is most desirable to openly abide by the three non-nuclear principles”.

Under Hatoyama’s leadership, Japan is expected to build up its own military capabilities by legalizing the status of the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF). During his previous term as DPJ president, he unveiled a proposal in 2000 opining his ideas and suggesting ways how the present Constitution should be revised. Being the President of the main opposition, he was the first Japanese leader to acknowledge that “the SDF are nothing but armed force.” To recognize this fact he proposed an amendment to Article 9 of the current Constitution as follows:

  • Japan shall maintain Land, Sea and air forces, as well as other war potential.
  • Japan shall neither use the forces for act of aggression nor shall Japan employ conscription.

Hatoyama’s proposal was the first among the proposals that came to the fore amid the Constitutional debate which altered the existing clause of Article 9. Consistent with the DPJ’s position, he suggested decreasing Japan’s dependence on the US for its security needs and termed the US troop deployment in a sovereign country as unnatural reiterating that Japan should not remain a US “protectorate”.

On the contrary, the LDP seems to provide a credible alternative foreign policy for Japan. Recently, Foreign Minister, Hirofumi Nakasone, slammed the DPJ’s foreign policy for ‘being irresponsible’ and ‘lacking specifics’. Regarding the latter’s recent proposal to relocate the U.S. Futenma air station outside Okinawa, Nakasone said it was ‘irresponsible’ because the DPJ has not proposed any alternative site. Nakasone further claimed that there are inconsistencies in the DPJ’s policies. He pointed out that the DPJ has modified its position and is now unlikely to end the refueling mission of Maritime Self Defence Force (MSDF) in the Indian Ocean, despite its previous staunch opposition.

Nakasone also criticized the DPJ’s tactics that effectively killed a bill which proposed allowing inspections of vessels sailing to or from North Korea. While commenting on the issue, he stated that Japan has responsibility to conduct checks on ships in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1874.

The ruling LDP may well boast its achievements and attack DPJ’s fuzziness in diplomacy, but for its own sake, the DPJ needs to present a convincing vision of a future Japan that is distinct from the one projected by the ruling coalition, so that voters are presented with clear choices.