Replacing Suga as prime minister will do little to resolve Japan’s political crisis

Japan will soon have a new prime minister. Not because there is a general election coming up – although there is – but because the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP), the deeply unpopular Yoshihide Suga, abruptly resigned la semana pasada. Following a series of local election defeats, an Olympics staged against the public will, and a related fifth Covid wave that has pushed Japan’s medical system into “disaster mode”, Suga’s approval rating had plummeted to its lowest since the LDP’s return to power in 2012. Resignation was surely a wise decision, one that put the party first.

Given how disastrous the last few months have been, one might imagine that Suga’s replacement – almost certainly a man – would have his work cut out to avoid catastrophe in the general election. But that’s not how Japanese democracy works.

The country has largely avoided the polarising populist extremism seen elsewhere. sin embargo, the system’s failure to produce credible opposition figures capable of breaking the LDP’s stranglehold on power has left the Japanese electorate apathetic. Rather than voting for extremist parties, the people just don’t vote: the country has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the democratic world. If there’s no real choice, what does it mean for democracy?

In the short-term it means that, while the conservative LDP might lose a few seats in the general election, due to be called before the end of November, it is still expected to comfortably maintain power. Installing a new leader will cement this even further. En efecto, the very act of staging the leadership election has overshadowed the general election: with all eyes on the LDP, no one is talking about the smaller, divided opposition parties.

In the long term, understanding how it is that a party with an unpopular leader, who quit after barely 12 months in the job, could still go on to easily win an election, and what that means for Japan’s future, requires a quick history lesson. The LDP has ruled almost uninterrupted since its founding in 1955, but this “democracy without competition” was not a foregone conclusion.

De hecho, the immediate postwar years saw mass, sometimes violent protests against US military bases, y en 1947 there was even a socialist prime minister. sin embargo, en 1960 the leader of the Socialist party was assassinated, and the LDP rammed an alliance treaty with the US through Japan’s parliament, the Diet, locking out protesting MPs in the process. With the issue of US bases and Japan’s role in the cold war settled for a generation, and against a weakened socialist party, the LDP set about establishing total dominance. Presiding over Japan’s postwar “economic miracle”, voters rewarded the party with successive majorities. mientras tanto, due to the nature of the Japanese political system, the LDP lavished attention on special interest groups, such as farmers and big business, in order to maximise the value of its votes and ensure financial support for elections. Por lo tanto, even as the LDP vote share declined by almost 20 percentage points from the late 1950s to the 1970s, the party still won a comfortable majority of seats.

The combination of economic recession and a series of high-profile corruption scandals in the early 1990s finally ended the LDP’s near-40-year unbroken rule. En 1993 a patchwork coalition took power and revised the electoral system, partly implementing a Westminster-style first-past-the-post system in order to establish a two-party democracy. Aún, por 1994 the LDP had returned to power, governing for another 15 años.

Neoliberal economic reforms in the 1990s and 2000s increased inequality and insecurity, opening up new spaces for political dissent. Several opposition parties consolidated to form the Democratic party of Japan (DPJ), a more progressive and urban party, cual unseated the LDP in 2009. Political scientists heralded the delayed arrival of a two-party system. Elected on a manifesto of social welfare and economic reform, the DPJ’s rule was overshadowed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami y el Fukushima nuclear meltdown. The LDP successfully blamed the human-made disaster on the DPJ, despite the fact that deregulation of safety measures took place under successive LDP administrations. Por 2012, the LDP was back in power, and the DPJ disintegrated shortly after.

The LDP is a broad church and an incredibly successful vote-winning machine, but its dominance has prevented alternative ideas and fresh faces from emerging. It speaks volumes that the most exciting, joven, dynamic candidate for PM is Taro Kono, a 58-year-old party stalwart born into a famous political dynasty.

Women make up less than 10% of the Diet, and Suga’s outgoing cabinet has two female ministers out of 21. All but one of those ministers are over 50, the exception being Shinjirō Koizumi, the son of a former prime minister. The monopoly of power in the hands of privileged, conservative, older men with close connections to big business delivered material prosperity in the postwar era. It is failing to deliver for the majority of Japanese today. Precarious employment and high relative poverty rates help explain the steep decline in marriages and births, as well as loneliness and mental health issues.

The LDP does not represent these people, nor does it represent the millions of immigrants who, with temporary visas and precarious employment, share the lowest rung of the job market. sin embargo, these are precisely the voices – those of women, of young people, of the precariat and of the immigrants – that are needed to help Japan deal with the problems of a rapidly ageing society, the ongoing pandemic and the climate crisis, y, por último, to steer Japan towards a more humane society.

After so many years of LDP rule, it’s not only the democratic system, but the very future of Japan, that is at stake. It seems unlikely that whoever wins the LDP leadership race, and becomes prime minister, will meet these challenges.

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