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Japanese Swing

Why is the country's dominant party about to get clocked in Sunday's election?

In September 2005, Junichiro Koizumi, then Japan’s prime minister and leader of the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), defied expectations and led his party to a smashing victory over the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in that year’s general election. The LDP won 296 of 480 seats in the House of Representatives, the first absolute majority for the ruling party since Japan introduced a new electoral system in 1994--and, together with its junior coalition partner Komeito, the LDP-led government wielded a supermajority for the first time since the party’s creation in 1955.

Now Koizumi, three years removed from the premiership and retired from politics, is surveying an entirely different political scene: an almost certain defeat for the LDP on the same magnitude as its victory in 2005. It will probably lose its position as the largest party in the Japanese House of Representatives for the first time in its history.

Polls by leading dailies in advance of the August 30th vote all point in the same direction, predicting that the DPJ can win at least 300 seats, coming close to a supermajority of its own, while the LDP is in danger of falling below 100 seats--with a number of senior LDP politicians, who have rarely had to sweat reelection, fighting for their political lives against young and (often female) DPJ challengers.

But what explains the enormous pendulum swing in Japanese politics? The answer isn’t as puzzling as it might seem.

In 2005, the Japanese public was not voting for the LDP and it was not voting for postal privatization, the issue that was the basis for Koizumi’s calling the election. It was voting for Junichiro Koizumi, not just Koizumi the man--although Koizumi’s quirky charisma (and hair!) were certainly part of his appeal--but for the type of politics that Koizumi represented.

In 2001 the LDP was deeply divided, led by the widely detested Yoshiro Mori. Since returning to power in 1994 (it was out for only a little more than a year), the party had overseen a worsening economic crisis even as the government went deep into debt trying to revive the economy through pump priming. The ramifications of Japan’s aging, shrinking population were coming into view. There was a widespread sense of worsening quality of life and growing inequality in the relationship between Tokyo and the provinces, in income, and in economic opportunity. The LDP appeared incapable of fixing any of these problems, and the creation of the DPJ in 1998 suggested that an alternative might be in the offing.

Then Koizumi rode into power in 2001, on the wave of support from the party’s local chapters. He signaled a break from the LDP’s traditional machine politics and sought to strengthen the power of the prime minister at the expense of the party and its factions. He wanted to appeal directly to the public in his campaign against what he called the LDP’s “opposition forces.” In short, he signified change.

The public rallied behind the prime minister because he signaled a brand of governance in which the prime minister and the cabinet would be able to establish policy priorities and follow through on them, without bending to the will of party barons, bureaucrats, or interest groups. It was for this reason that Koizumi’s expulsion of LDP members who voted against postal privatization in August 2005 was significant: Koizumi was signaling that it was the prime minister who decided policy, not party notables.

Not surprisingly, in a poll (in Japanese) taken after the election in 2005 by the Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japanese daily, 58 percent of respondents viewed Koizumi as the reason for the LDP’s victory, compared with only 18 percent who cited support for the LDP.

A year later, however, Koizumi had left the premiership, handing over the party to his chosen successor, Shinzo Abe … who promptly agreed to readmit the so-called “postal rebels” who had been banished by Koizumi. The old LDP was back. In the three years since Koizumi left office, the LDP rule has once again been characterized by widely unpopular cabinets hamstrung by the party and controlled by the bureaucracy. Also, many of the problems present when Koizumi took over in 2001 remained, and had indeed worsened in the interim despite a long period of (export-led) economic growth.

The 2009 general election, then, has been driven by the same desire for effective government that led the public to rally behind Koizumi in 2005--this, despite polls showing substantial skepticism regarding the DPJ’s policy program and its ability to change Japan for the better. The LDP has shown itself to be incapable, and the DPJ, for all the doubts about its manifesto, is promising a new form of government in which addressing the economic insecurity of the Japanese people is the top priority.

But while the Japanese people appear ready for “regime change,” the DPJ’s slogan, they don’t seem to want radical change--but rather change in the sense elaborated by former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa: “change so that things remain the same.” Or, in this case, so that things might be as they once were.

Tobias Harris is the author of Observing Japan, a blog on Japanese politics, and Ph.D. student in political science the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.