Sunday, August 30, 2009

Japan 7: Change?

As expected, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has won a landslide victory in Japan's general election.

The DPJ already controlled the upper house of the parliament (House of Councillors). As is typical in parliamentary democracies, that gave the party a certain amount of blocking power. But it's not until now, when they have won a large majority in the lower house (House of Representatives) that they can implement their agenda.

Will their new-found power lead to major policy changes?

During the period since 1955, with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enjoying a nearly-continuous hold on power, two policy positions have been consistently pursued by LDP-led governments: a close military alliance with the U.S., and pro-business economic policies.

Many DPJ leaders, including Yukio Hatoyama, the next prime minister, started out in the LDP. Therefore, one might expect very little in the way of substantive changes, seeing the party rivalry as involving clashing personal ambitions, more than ideological differences.

But Hatoyama and his party have talked about changing those basic policies, by concentrating more on economic equality than favoring business interests, and pursuing a foreign policy that is less focused on the American alliance.

Perhaps this is only product differentiation. A new party needs to show itself to be different from the party it hopes to replace. Otherwise, what motive do the voters have to make a change?

To some degree, that's the same type of product differentiation that a seller of, for example, detergent or toothpaste uses, in competing with a bestselling brand.

Often, such campaign rhetoric from an opposition party exaggerates the degree of change they actually end up implementing.

Looking at some American examples, George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a strong free-trade platform. He held to that, to some degree. But he also jacked up tariffs on steel imports.

From the other direction, Barack Obama made reassuring noises to his union supporters, to the effect that he would pull back on free trade. He talked, for instance, about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. That idea seems to have been dropped, now that he's in office.

The fall of the Soviet Union, the economic rise of China, and the nuclear threat from North Korea, have changed the geopolitical picture around Japan in recent decades. So far, Japan has largely maintained its alliance with, and military dependence on, the U.S. It will be interesting to see to what degree Japan's political shift will change that (or not).

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