I've been describing the history of post-World War II Japanese politics, in this and other posts, in order to provide background for their general election tomorrow (maybe today if you're reading this in East Asia).
The incumbent prime minister is 68-year-old Taro Aso of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). As I described in those earlier posts, the LDP has governed Japan nearly continuously since it was formed by a 1955 merger. Aso has held that office for less than one year.
Junichiro Koizumi of the LDP had been prime minister from 2001 to 2006, when he stepped down due to term limits. He was considered a charismatic leader, in a political system that has often seen less-colorful politicians rise to the top.
Koizumi pursued reform policies, including the privatization of the postal service. Such a move has been controversial in any country that has considered it. But, through its postal savings system, the post office was also the largest financial institution in Japan, offering services such as banking and life insurance. That was where Koizumi was mainly looking, in order to reform the financial system, and help shake Japan out of the economic doldrums it had been in for most of the previous two decades.
Koizumi called a general election in 2005, to establish a mandate for the postal privatization. After he ruthlessly culled his opponents from the ranks of LDP candidates, the party won a landslide victory, and the Diet (parliament) went on to approve the proposal.
It's been all downhill since then, for the LDP. Aso is the third new leader to take over the party in less than three years. None of them have had the popularity or stature of Koizumi. And the recession, which has hit Japan's export-dependent economy hard, has not helped the standing of the governing party.
Now, more than ever before in the LDP's history, there is an alternative that Japanese voters accept as a credible governing party: the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
The DPJ was formed by a merger of several small opposition parties in 1998. It got off to a slow start during a period when the LDP seemed to be resurgent. In the long run, that might come to be seen as nothing more than a dead-cat bounce by the LDP.
As this year began, everyone expected Ichiro Ozawa to lead the DPJ into the general election. But he resigned his leadership position in May, due to scandal. His party feared that its seemingly inevitable rise to power might be sidetracked. However, Ozawa's successor, Yukio Hatoyama, seems poised to lead the DPJ to victory, and become prime minister.
As is the case with many opposition politicians in Japan, Hatoyama, 62, started out in politics with the LDP. He has been in the lower house of parliament since 1986. Hatoyama left the LDP in 1993. At that time, LDP defectors were experimenting with various party organizational structures, in an attempt to come up with a credible opposition to the long-time governing party. Eventually, Hatoyama emerged as a senior member of the DPJ.
Both leaders are descendants of elite political families. Hatoyama's grandfather Ichiro Hatoyama was prime minister, and a key player in the LDP merger, as I described here. Shigeru Yoshida, a former prime minister who was the other key merger partner, is maternal grandfather to Aso.
So, in a sense, it's a family quarrel. The many defections from the LDP over the past couple of decades seem finally to be resulting in the end, and perhaps a permanent end, of the LDP's hold on power.