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A vote for change, Japanese-style

By Marina Kamimura
CNN Tokyo Bureau Chief

July 6, 2000
Web posted at: 4:00 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Japanese Emperor Akihito, left, greets Mori during a ritualistic ceremony Tuesday night, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo  

In this story:

A historic election?

New voting patterns

Economics and gaffes

What's next?


TOKYO (CNN) -- Change is afoot in Japanese politics, though as is often the case in this country, it is not outlined clearly in black and white.

Japan's government looks very much like it did before last week's general elections. Despite his waning popularity, Yoshiro Mori was re-elected as prime minister Tuesday, the most obvious sign that the Liberal Democrats, or LDP, are still very much in charge.

Mori retained key ministers of the 18-member Cabinet, including those charged with guiding Japan's economic and diplomatic policies. But he replaced most of the others he inherited in April from his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi. One critic said this week's shuffle was analogous to an "inventory clearance sale."

Meantime, a new dynamic is emerging: The opposition Democrats are now a force to be reckoned with, even in Japan's more powerful parliamentary chamber, the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan's Diet.

The party is only four years old and cobbled from a wide assortment of politicians, including many former LDP members. Yet it came out of the elections with a mandate to serve as the dominant opposition party.

"On a superficial level, the coalition party gained the majority," said Haruo Shimada, a politics professor at Keio University. "So formally speaking, nothing changed at the end of the day.

"But under the superficial format, rather clear-cut changes are on the way."

How did it happen?

A historic election?

Most Japanese awoke to drizzly skies on June 25. Some living on the southern main island of Kyushu could not even leave home for the better part of the day because of torrential rains, a hazard of Japan's annual rainy season.

It was not a particularly auspicious start to the country's first general elections in four years, an event that some observers said could be a turning point in Japanese politics.

Mori bows following the Parliament's vote Tuesday to reelect him as prime minister  

"I was a first grader in junior high when World War II ended, so I have witnessed many elections," said political commentator Minoru Morita, days before the general elections.

"But this is the first time since the war that an election's outcome could span 360 degrees. This is going to be an historical election."

A day later, when the Japanese awoke to clearer skies, Mori's Liberal Democrats were still in power. But it was at the head of a greatly weakened three-party coalition.

The LDP had been stripped of its majority, but it was still the most powerful party in the House of Representatives, clinching 233 seats. And together with its coalition partners, the LDP controlled 271 seats in the lower house, or 56 percent of the 480 seats.

The combination was enough to give the coalition what is known here as an "absolute stable majority" -- that is, enough power to ensure coalition personnel could chair all of the lower house's standing committees, where legislation is ironed out.

So had anything changed?

New voting patterns

Support for the opposition is nothing new. For much of the post-World War II period, opposition parties dominated by the Socialists won the support of those Japanese groups wanting a counterforce to the dominant LDP.

This time, observers say, many mainstream voters cast ballots for the Democrats -- what they considered to be a relatively mainstream party emerging among the opposition.

So what is so different about the support for the Democrats in this election?

Before these elections, for example, the Communist Party -- long-relegated to the fringes of Japanese politics -- had attracted enough votes to become Japan's fourth largest parliamentary force. Analysts say that many voters who were disillusioned with the establishment cast votes for the Communists, confident the party would never secure enough general support to gain control.

This time, observers say, many mainstream voters cast ballots for the Democrats, not simply as a protest but because they saw what they considered to be a relatively mainstream party emerging among the opposition.

Japan's new Cabinet members pose for a group photo at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Tuesday  

"This is very different," said political analyst Keith Henry of the Japan program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I think voters felt quite comfortable voting for the Democrats this time. And I think a lot of that was driven by the fact that they wanted a change."

The urge for change was particularly obvious in terms of geography and demographics. Rural and city voters showed their different colors.

Rural and mainly elderly voters stuck with the familiar and voted for the LDP, the party that had protected their livelihoods over decades of industrialization by giving them the bulk of Japan's spending on public works.

City voters, especially the young and the urban "salarymen" (company employees), cast their votes with the Democrats. Led by Yukio Hatoyama, the Democrats tried to convince the Japanese that a vote for them was a vote for a better and more balanced future -- even if it included swallowing painful measures, such as higher taxes, to pay for it.

Economics and gaffes

Why the divide?

For one, the LDP's conventional supporters -- farmers -- are disappearing. Either they have moved to the cities, where their political interests have changed, or they are dying of old age.

Others who have historically voted for the LDP, such as the millions of workers fueling the country's small and mid-sized businesses that are considered the engines of the economy, have watched their livelihoods dry up as Japan's economic problems take their toll.

Many young people and middle-aged salarymen, with no particular ties to the aging political elite, have watched their incomes shrink, even as the government continues to pour more and more money into the economy.

Then there was the backlash to Mori's verbal blunders in his short time in office -- notably in May when he called Japan a "divine nation with the emperor at its center."

Mori later explained he never meant to revive the nationalistic fervor around the emperor associated with Japan's wartime past. He said he had only wanted Japan's troubled youth to have more pride in their culture.

In history-sensitive Japan, however, the words constituted a faux pas extraordinaire. Exit polls indicated it was enough to push some undecided voters to go with the opposition.

Even so, it could be argued that a lot of the damage to the party had already been done, even before Mori took Obuchi's place when the latter suffered a stroke.

Last fall's union of the LDP, then led by Obuchi, with its longtime rival, the Buddhist-backed Komei Party, was seen by the public as a marriage of convenience. It was also said to be one of the factors contributing to a fall in support for the Obuchi administration.

What's next?

What remains to be seen is whether the recent election gains for the Democrats amount to just another protest against what's the establishment, or a demonstration of solid support. A lot depends on whether the party's promises of change translate into concrete policy alternatives.

Even the Democrats admit their quandary: For all their increasing stature as the main opposition party, they still control barely a quarter of the seats in Japan's lower house -- and an even smaller percentage of the upper house seats. The Democrats also have few obvious choices for partners should they try to create a coalition government, when and if they are given a shot at power.

Maybe the developments of the past two weeks were really just change, Japanese-style -- where change first needs to be nurtured, allowing time for a consensus to develop.

"We are now recognized as a possible alternative in a new two-party system," party leader Hatoyama said. "But the people have not given their approval of us as fully prepared to take power."

Then again, maybe the developments of the past two weeks were really just change, Japanese-style. After all, this is a country where sudden moves are not encouraged. Though change, when it comes, can be quite rapid at times, it first needs to be nurtured, allowing time for a consensus to develop.

The election "marks, I think, a prelude to real change," said Henry, the MIT analyst. "I think the voters wanted a change. I am not sure they know themselves exactly what kind of change yet."


Office of the Prime Minister, Japan
House of Representatives, Japan
House of Councillors: National Diet of Japan
Economic Planning Agency of Japan

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