2009 election preview: Japan

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Japan will go to the polls for a national election in 2009, at any point up to September. The election will be contested by LDP Prime Minister Taro Aso and Democratic Party leader Ichirō Ozawa.

Japanese politics has been dominated by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party for most of its post-war history. The LDP was formed by a merger of right-wing parties in 1955, including the governing Democratic Party. The LDP has remained in power for all but one of the intervening 54 years. The LDP ruled unhindered from 1955 until 1993, when they lost their majority to a coalition of smaller parties led by the Social Democratic Party, but the LDP returned to power at the 1996 election, and have led Japan ever sine.

Japanese politics has seen remarkable stability in terms of political party rule, but not so stable in terms of personalities, and most significant changes in Japanese politics have taken place through change of leadership in the LDP, rather than a change of government. The 1955-1993 LDP government was led by 15 prime ministers, and seven Prime Ministers have led the sitting LDP government over the last thirteen years.

The Japanese Diet is elected by a mix of single-member electorates and proportional representation. The lower house, the House of Representatives, has 480 seats. 300 members are elected to represent single-member constituencies. The other 180 represent 11 large multi-member constituencies, elected by proportional representation. Unlike Germany or New Zealand, however, the PR list seats are not fillled as “top-up” seats. The two sections are elected independently.

The upper house, the House of Councillors, is filled at elections every three years, with half of the House up for election at each election. Because of the varied terms, elections for the upper house and lower house take place at different times. Approximately two thirds of the upper house are elected to represent Japan’s prefectural districts, with the rest filled by national party lists by proportional representation.

Recent politics in Japan has been dominated by the figure of Junichirō Koizumi, who was Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006, an almost-unprecedented term in office. Most LDP Prime Ministers served for 1-2 years, with three PMs, including Koizumi, serving a 4-5 year term. Koizumi retired in 2006, following a successful 2005 election, when the LDP gained substantial ground on the Democratic Party, a party formed in 1998 from a number of pre-existing anti-LDP party which quickly became the dominant opposition party. Koizumi was succeeded by Shinzō Abe in September 2006. Abe’s popularity didn’t last long, with it particularly suffering following the May 2007 suicide of Toshikatsu Matsuoka, his agricultural minister, who was in the middle of a financial scandal. The July 2007 upper house election saw the Democratic Party build on its victory at the 2004 election to win a solid victory, and with its allies gained control of the upper house. In September 2007, less than a year after he took office, Abe resigned, citing his unpopularity as hindering the passage of legislation through the upper house.

Abe was succeeded by Yasuo Fukuda, who again lasted just short of a year, resigning in September 2008, again citing his inability to pass legislation. He has been succeeded by Taro Aso. Aso was Foreign Minister for two years under Koizumi and Abe. He will be facing off against Ichirō Ozawa, leading the Democratic Party. Ozawa himself was an LDP minister in the late 1980s and 1990s.

In the last few days, as Japanese politics enters 2009, it appears that Aso is in a poor position to win the next election, with his government suffering from an approval rating of 19%. It appears that Japan is on track for a rare change of government in 2009.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I wonder whether the relatively long rule of Koizumi has changed the mindset of the Japanese people. Instead of expecting PMs to rotate every year or so, they now associate it with instability and indecisiveness- as would be the case in most Western democracies. Also, his modern flamboyant style perhaps makes the current bunch of ‘suits’ seem out of date by comparison.

    I don’t know how stable or vibrant the Democratic party leadership has been, but it could explain why the dominant LDP is in difficulty now.

  2. It’s possible, I’m not so sure. There is still a very strong tradition of parties not being dominated by a single figure. I think it’s just that the LDP have been dominant for so long and have grown tired.

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