No one, it seems, is willing to offer an explanation for how the LDP can save itself in a general election. The LDP may yet win the general election, but its fate is out of its hands.
Some are starting to measure the LDP’s coffin, so to speak. AERA, a weekly magazine, notes that Yamada Shinya, an elections forecaster, has predicted that the DPJ will win 230 seats to the LDP’s 191 seats. Mr. Yamada foresees sluggish turnout and notes the importance of the change in the Communist Party’s election strategy — nothing too different from my own assumptions about the next election. (I have started — and hope to finish — my own analysis and predictions for the 300 single-member districts.)
In the meantime, Mr. Aso’s situation continues to worsen. The latest blow to his government is a dispute with Komeito. Last week Koga Makoto, the LDP’s chief elections strategist, noted that it was strange that the LDP would tell supporters to vote for the LDP in single-member districts and Komeito for proportional representation seats, a statement interpreted as a hint that the LDP is reconsidering the terms of its electoral partnership with Komeito. Mr. Koga was quick to reassure Komeito that the LDP remains committed to working with Komeito to win a majority for the coalition — the LDP can hardly afford to do otherwise, given the support Komeito is said to provide for LDP candidates. Komeito head Ota Akihiro was dissatisfied enough with Mr. Koga to call for an apology. The question now is whether LDP candidates will receive the support from Komeito that they have received in the past. Will Komeito voters continue to be loyal to their party or will they stay home or vote against LDP candidates in a general election? Along with the JCP question, the Komeito vote is of course an important variable in determining whether the LDP will be returned to power.
Of course, events may render all of these factors irrelevant in a general election. If the bottom continues to fall out of the Japanese economy — Japan Economy Watch and Ken Worsley’s Japanese Economy News are essential sources for the bad news — it may simply be impossible for the LDP to reverse itself in time for a general election. The latest news is that in its monthly assessment of the Japanese economy, the government has determined that the economy has worsened (as opposed to weakened) for the first time since February 2002. There appears to be no end to the bad news. Little surprise that the prime minister’s approval ratings may be headed into the single digits, having fallen to 16% in a recent Mainichi poll.
The most pressing question now is how long the government will wait before calling an election. Abe Shinzo, quickly becoming a younger version of Mori Yoshiro, has called for the election to be delayed until May at the earliest, until after the passage of the 2009 budget. I expect that Mr. Aso will wait until he has a budget in hand before going to the voters, although I do not expect the budget to make much of a difference. The Aso government and the LDP have simply been overwhelmed by problems: sluggish domestic demand, a shift to reliance on temporary and part-time workers, growing pensions and health care liabilities, an intolerable debt burden, stagnant regions, and so on. The economic crisis is only exacerbating these problems. The result is that the LDP is on the brink of collapse. The party has simply overwhelmed by a cascade of systemic failures. As Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political scientist at the University of Toronto wrote in The Upside of Down, “When a society has to confront a bunch of critical problems at the same time, it can’t easily focus its resources on one and then move on to the others.”
The LDP, trapped by previous decisions that created or exacerbated these problems, is unable to take a definitive step in any direction. This is the essence of the LDP’s ongoing debate over tax reform and a consumption tax increase. The government needs more revenue to meet current and future liabilities without increasing the national debt; for a number of LDP members, most notably Yosano Kaoru, the economy minister, a consumption tax increase appears to be the answer to the government’s problems. But passing a consumption tax — or even committing to a timeline for phasing in a consumption tax — is a thorny political problem that has involved tortuous negotiations within the LDP and between the LDP and Komeito. Facing an election and an economic crisis, Mr. Aso has been understandably reluctant to make a firm commitment to the timing of a consumption tax increase. A consumption tax increase may solve one problem, but it may exacerbate others (sluggish domestic demand, low growth, and perhaps growing social inequality, as a consumption tax increase would presumably hurt low-income Japanese most). Japan is ensnared in a web from which there is no easy escape.
Not surprisingly, a recent Yomiuri-Waseda poll found that the public more disappointed in the LDP than hopeful about the DPJ. Regime change alone will not cut Japan’s Gordian knot. It is entirely plausible that a DPJ-led government will be equally stymied. But the public is at least willing to give the DPJ a chance, an entirely reasonable proposition given the LDP’s record.
It may be, however, that Japan’s problems are insoluble, and Japan still has a long way to fall. The greatest reason for pessimism may ultimately be that despite having experienced nearly two decades of stagnation, the establishment has yet to come up with any better ideas for organizing Japanese society. As a result, the global financial crisis, rather than providing an opportunity for Japan to take a leadership role, has paralyzed Japan. To return to Thomas Homer-Dixon, he argues that an essential quality for dealing with crises is a “prospective mind.”
“We can’t possibly flourish,” he writes, “in a future filled with sharp nonlinearities and threshold effects — and, somewhat paradoxically, we can’t hope to preserve at least some of what we hold dear — unless we’re comfortable with change, surprise, and the essential transience of things, and unless we’re open to radically new ways of thinking about our world and about the way we should lead our lives. We need to exercise our imaginations so that we can challenge the unchallengeable and conceive the inconceivable. Hunkering down, denying what’s happening around us, and refusing to countenance anything more than incremental adjustments to our course are just about the worst things we can do.”
Despite the best efforts of Koizumi Junichiro, I fear that this is precisely how the Japanese establishment has responded to the lost decade. Public debates are stale. Even minor change is watered down. Or as Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Watching the irresolution of the LDP’s reformists, and the strength with which the LDP’s old guard resisted any attempt to redirect gasoline tax revenue away from road construction earlier this year, I cannot help but think that Japan simply lacks the ability to adjust, that despite a history of making radical changes in the face of crises, the current crop of leaders is simply not up to the task. Perhaps as bad as things look today, they aren’t nearly bad enough to force radical change — the decay of an economic system hardly compares to the threat of colonization and the blow of defeat and occupation. After all, despite the lost decade, Japan remained the world’s second-largest economy, its companies respected globally. Perhaps Japan is more capable of responding to short, sharp shocks than to prolonged, barely visible social problems.
Of course, Japan is hardly alone. I was reading Thomas Homer-Dixon Sunday while waiting in Boston’s Logan Airport, where the TV was tuned to CNN’s Late Edition. Wolf Blitzer was struggling to moderate a discussion between Democratic Congressman Barney Frank and Republican Congressman Eric Cantor on the financial crisis. Congressman Cantor insisted that when apportioning blame for the crisis, Congress must bear much of it for encouraging risky lending, which is to say that it is not necessarily the market but the government that failed.
I can think of no better illustration of what Homer-Dixon calls “hunkering down, denying what’s happening around us, and refusing to countenance anything more than incremental adjustments.”