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Election won, civil war resumed
( 2003-11-11 10:08) (Economist.com)

The ruling coalition won Japan's general election on Sunday, but the opposition's strong showing will soon have the prime minister and his party back at each other's throats.

Judging by the photographs, it was a stunning victory for the opposition. On Monday November 10th, the day after voters went to the polls, Japan¡¯s newspapers ran pictures of a grim-looking Junichiro Koizumi next to shots of a beaming Naoto Kan. Despite his grin, Mr Kan still holds the same post that he occupied before the election: head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and leader of the opposition. But even though Mr Koizumi's coalition has managed to maintain its hold on power, the DPJ gained lots of ground and the prime minister's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was forced to merge with one of its two coalition partners to maintain a slim majority. The outlook for reform remains muddled¡ªfor the moment. Much depends on who wins the blame game that will now break out inside the LDP.

Both Mr Koizumi and his anti-reform opponents in the LDP will find cause to say "I told you so". The prime minister has been warning his party for months that the days of complacent rule are ending, and that competition from the rising DPJ makes reform a political necessity. To a supporter of economic reform, the DPJ's impressive gains (it added 40 seats, and now holds 177 of parliament¡¯s 480 spots), and the manner in which it picked them up, would seem to support Mr Koizumi's arguments in the LDP debate.

The DPJ has bolstered its claim to be a broad-based, mainstream party with a bent for reform and a legitimate chance of winning power one day. It took a big step in this direction in September by merging with the next-biggest opposition party, the Liberals. It took another big step in Sunday¡¯s election, by gaining seats partly at the expense of the other two sizeable opposition parties: the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. Many voters seem to have concluded that a vote for any party except the DPJ was in effect a vote for the status quo.

Arguably, the DPJ would have done even better had Mr Koizumi given in to his own party's anti-reformers. Mr Kan based the campaign on a detailed DPJ "manifesto", which laid out specific policy targets and timetables for everything from decentralisation to cuts in public-works spending. This helped to centre the debate on big issues. The manifesto was broadly reformist. It argued for reining in the central bureaucracy and cutting subsidies to special interest groups who have long backed the LDP. In essence, the DPJ told voters that it was more committed to reform than Mr Koizumi.

Mr Koizumi can make a strong case, therefore, that the election was a battle over which party was most committed to, and capable of, reform; and that the LDP hung on to 237 of its 247 seats (and added four more on Monday by merging with the New Conservative Party) largely because the prime minister had ignored the squeals within his own party and championed a reformist agenda. Even as the votes were being counted, however, Mr Koizumi¡¯s opponents in the LDP were arguing the opposite. Mr Koizumi bullied them into silence, they complained, by claiming that his national popularity and reformist message would deliver the goods on election day. They are now saying he has been proved wrong.

His policies, they argue, have hurt them in two ways. Because he failed to lubricate the traditional LDP electoral machinery¡ªincluding farmers, construction firms and mom-and-pop firms¡ªthe party was unable to grind out enough votes in many hard-fought districts. Moreover, they say, Mr Koizumi's policies of cutting public works and encouraging banks to abandon weak borrowers have hurt the economy. If he had pursued "anti-deflation" policies, as they asked, the argument goes, recent signs of a mild economic recovery would now be much stronger. The DPJ's reformist message would have lost much of its appeal, and more voters would have stuck with the devil they know. This policy battle is not new: it has raged inside the LDP since Mr Koizumi took over the party in April 2001.

As the prime minister and his party prepare to resume their fight, they must also gird themselves for two other sources of tension. First, the rift could grow between lower-house MPs (who will now take their seats and resume their criticism of Mr Koizumi) and the LDP¡¯s upper-house members (who will need to fight an election next year, and may still feel that Mr Koizumi is their best weapon). Second, the LDP¡¯s remaining coalition partner, New Komeito, may expect a greater say in decisions after a strong showing at the polls. One of Komeito's clearest issues in the campaign was a call to take pensions reform more seriously.

So, Mr Koizumi has his work cut out. With luck, he will conclude that many Japanese voters really do support reform¡ªand that the surest way to lose their backing would be to cave in to the critics in his own party.

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