All signs point to stasis

Asahi published the results of a survey conducted with Tokyo University that looks at the policy positions of victorious LDP and DPJ candidates in the House of Councillors election. (The detailed study will be published in the October issue of Ronza.)

Accompanied by one of those marvelously convoluted charts that Japanese newspapers seem to revel in printing, the survey suggests that after a period of relative dynamism in Japanese policy making perhaps going as far back as the Hashimoto Cabinet, the Japanese political system may be in for another period of what J.A.A. Stockwin has called “immobilism.”

It’s not just a function of institutional gridlock due to divided government, although that’s certainly part of it. The survey, measuring the new members along two axes — foreign policy (dove v. hawk) on the x-axis, domestic/economic policy (retention of the Japanese-style system v. reform) on the y-axis — shows a shift away from the dynamic poles (hawkish, reformist) in favor of greater support for the status quo.

At the same time, differences between the parties are growing and the parties seem to be coalescing into distinct, coherent entities, showing the extent to which a two-party system is in the making. Of the DPJ’s new Upper House members, only a small proportion of them fall on the hawkish end of the foreign policy axis, and an even smaller proportion are in the hawk/reform quadrant (this is where Prime Minister Abe falls, and it might be called the neo-conservative quadrant). This is a considerable change from the 2005 Lower House election. The largest portion of DPJ members falls in the dovish foreign policy/economic status quo quadrant, slightly outnumbering members in the dove/reform quadrant.

The LDP, meanwhile, is becoming less of a big tent as the onetime dovish mainstream continues to shrivel. In both the 2005 and 2007 elections, only a smattering of LDP members fell on the dovish side of the foreign policy axis. This survey also shows the troubled legacy of Mr. Koizumi within the LDP: in 2005, members were equally divided between support for the Japanese-style system and reform, but in 2007, defenders of the status quo enjoy a sizable majority among LDP members.

This seems to indicate that Mr. Ozawa may very well be making the DPJ into a new big-tent governing party that brings together a wide variety of views on economic and social policy — but at the same time, foreign policy may once again become the major cleavage between parties as it was during the cold war (which would explain why the DPJ leadership was so quick to emphasize its opposition to the extension of the anti-terror special measures law). It also suggests that the DPJ may be well placed to continue to compete strongly with the LDP in both urban and rural Japan, the key to political hegemony.

That said, until the details of the survey are published, it’s perhaps premature to conclude too much from these findings.

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