TOKYO – It took Japan more than 50 years to build a credible opposition party to the venerable Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but it only took a little more than three years for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to self-destruct. It is uncertain whether it can ever rebuild itself from the ruins this month’s electoral catastrophe.
Party leaders knew they were going to be whipped, but nobody suspected the shellacking that it would get. The party lost 175 seats in the lower House of Representatives, down from the high of 308 it won in its own landslide election in 2009. Yet even in defeat that year the LDP had retained more than 100 seats to build on in the next election.
With only 57 seats left in the house, the party’s prospects may be too dim for a comeback. It is only slightly stronger than the new Japan Restoration Party, founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and led (for now) by ex-Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. It won 51 seats, mostly from its Osaka base.
Although an unprecedented number of cabinet members lost their re-election bids, the DPJ does have a nucleus of attractive younger members who survived the debacle and could lead a revival, assuming they are not discouraged by the long, long slog ahead of them.
It is hard to remember the excitement that political watchers had in the very early months of the new regime after its big win in 2009, yet things began to go south very early in the life of the new government. Here are some benchmarks in the long slide to defeat, and perhaps oblivion:
The Hatoyama Debacle: In retrospect, the party couldn’t have picked a worse person to be the very first opposition prime minister than the goofy Yukio Hatoyama. The long-time fixer Ichiro Ozawa was to have been the first DPJ premier, but he was charged with illegal election financing (he has since been acquitted of all charges) and resigned as party president.
Hatoyama took it upon himself to open and presumably "solve" the vexing question of stationing too many American troops on Okinawa. There was no special reason for him to take up this pet crusade; it wasn’t mentioned in the party’s manifesto, nor was there pressure from Japanese public, at least outside of Okinawa.
The novice prime minister must have thought that solving the problem to the satisfaction of all three parties, Tokyo, Washington and the Okinawan people would make him a hero. Instead, he made a hash of it and was forced to resign as prime minister less than a year into his term.
It had the additional effect of irritating Washington, which believed it had a done deal, after 15 years of negotiating a relocation and downsizing of the American presence on the island. U.S. officials were openly contemptuous of the PM, which got back to the Japanese people.
Chasing the Waste Phantom: The Democratic party platform contained many expensive provisions for expanded social services, such as a bounty to encourage Japanese to have more children and the abolition of tuition for public secondary schools. It would be paid for by eliminating "waste" and unnecessary spending in the budget.
Shortly after it took office the new government created a special panel to identify wasteful programs that could be eliminated, with their funds being directed to DPJ projects. As it turned out, it could not find nearly enough waste to enable it to support large new spending programs and thus began to renege on their election promises.
A Man Named Ozawa: Ichiro Ozawa, the longtime political operator and the man who would have been the party’s first prime minister without the intervention of the Public Prosecutor’s office, was a drag on party unity for nearly all of its time in power. What to do about him vexed the party through most of those years.
Ozawa is a sort of can’t-live-with-him, can-live-without-him kind of guy. He has a genius for finding candidates to run for office, and is said to have personally selected, groomed about 100 of the party’s winning candidates in 2009. The party is grateful for his electioneering skills but wary of him because of an unsavory air of corruption.
Shortly after he succeeded Hatoyama as prime minister, Naoto Kan was fighting for his political life against an Ozawa challenge to the leadership, a challenge that Kan won as a whole but one in which he just barely carried a majority of the party’s members of parliament. It did not augur for a successful term.
Fukushima: Certainly no Japanese government since the end of World War II, and certainly no inexperienced government, has been faced with a challenge as big as the "triple" disaster of earthquake, tsunami and multiple nuclear power plant meltdowns that occurred in March 2011.
Kan was roundly criticized for flying to Fukushima less than 24 hours into the nuclear accident and getting in the way of the technicians at the site wrestling with the severely deteriorating situation at the three units. Then he seemed to take the other extreme by holing up in the prime minister’s office, leaving it to the emperor to be the country’s “consoler in chief.”
Too Much Dojo, Not Enough Gold Fish: The last DPJ prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, loudly announced he was risking his political life on passing an increase in the national sales tax. It proved an apt prophesy, not just for himself but for his party. Noda had previously served as finance minister where he came under the influence of the finance mandarins who strongly believe that the tax hike was necessary for financial solvency.
Not only did Noda abandon yet another party promise, in this case not to introduce the sales tax during its first term in office, he put paid to any more pretext that the new government wanted to challenge the powerful bureaucracy and put more policy-making into the hands of elected officials. This was supposedly at the heart of the DPJ agenda.
On taking office Noda said he would be a dojo not a goldfish, a Japanese term that roughly meant he would be a workhorse rather than a show horse. But as his extremely lackluster performance in the first National Press Club debate showed, in an election, it helps to be something of a show horse.