Democracy is the issue

The DPJ appears to be advancing on all fronts, pushing hard even in “conservative kingdoms” like Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu, the surprisingly competitive election in Kagoshima being the subject of an article in today’s Yomiuri (surprise! not online).

If the campaign continues this way until Sunday, even my worst-case scenario prediction will likely miss high.

Not surprisingly, Abe’s cronies have taken to repeating the party line that since, in the words of Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki, “the Upper House election is not an election for choosing the cabinet,” there should be no discussion of Prime Minister Abe’s taking responsibility for a defeat by resigning.

Meanwhile, the signs of LDP desperation continue to mount. There are proliferating reports of Koizumi sightings in closely contested prefectures, most recently in Kagoshima on Monday, where he told the crowd that Abe should not take the blame for the pensions scandal, which is the fault of the bureaucrats at the Social Insurance Agency. Will Koizumi’s presence be enough to make voters forget their rage at the present government, even as that government and its prime minister have failed to embrace the ideas that helped make Koizumi appealing in the first place? (Bill Emmott’s column in Asahi this week addresses this idea, and suggests that it will be a positive step for Japanese democracy if the voters punish Abe for his disregard for their interests.)

And will Koizumi’s presence help to retain the female vote for the LDP? David Pilling’s latest article in the FT addresses Japan’s female voters, who comprise a majority of the electorate. He suggests that women who were drawn to the LDP by Koizumi are ready to abandon it just as quickly, although it is unclear which party that will be abandoning it for, with the DPJ also unpopular among women.

Meanwhile, in recent days one has heard greater emphasis from the DPJ on the danger to Japanese democracy posed by the Abe Cabinet having both a Lower House super-majority and control of the Upper House. The idea of this election being about not only the pensions and other bread-and-butter issues, but the very nature of Japanese democracy is an important one, and the DPJ is right to stress it. If Japan is ever to become a proper liberal democracy, checks on the untrammeled power of executive, ruling party, and bureaucracy are essential — formal, legal checks backed with enforcement power, and not informal arrangements that give opposition some say over the drafting of legislation in the Diet but few other means to hold the government accountable for malfeasance, corruption, and policy failures. (As I’ve suggested before, Transparency International’s report on Japan’s national integrity system is an excellent place to start.) But divided government and the regular alternation of parties are only important first steps on the road to accountable, even liberal government.

To continue my thread on Japanese democracy and Mr. Abe’s curious ideas about government, the danger of the Abe “color,” to use the newspaper term, is that it has no particular respect for the importance of democracy as a process, a means to ensure that the concerns of the people are brought to the attention of the government, that the actions of the government are presented to and judged by the people, and that the government has the people’s confidence in implementing policies that affect millions. Policy is all that matters, because Abe, the Nakagawas, and so forth are convinced that they have all the answers for Japan’s future. If one has all the answers, why bother with elections and democratic processes? Democracy demands that a politician accept the possibility that he might be wrong, or at the very least accept the idea that other people might have a different but equally valid perspective. At no point while reading Prime Minister Abe’s book or following the ten months of the Abe cabinet have I felt that the prime minister has made this fundamental democratic “concession.”

The content of policy is, of course, important, but no policy, even policy essential for the future of Japan, is worth the price of the degradation of democracy.

And so the DPJ victory on Sunday may not have all that much impact on policy, but it will hinder the ability of the government to use its Lower House super-majority as a bludgeon, which will amount to a victory for democracy as a process — and that in itself is crucial.

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