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Economic gloom and political chaos: Japan’s election to bring more uncertainty

Japanese voters are set to cast their votes next week – but will anything change? EPA/Franck Robichon

It used to be said that Japan had a first-rate economy with third-rate politics. Ahead of the hastily announced general election later this month, it’s clear that the second half of this saying is still true.

Japan’s politics continues to get messier and more chaotic with constant leadership changes and instability. But this is coupled with the loss of Japan’s economic power under a mountain of national debt – the largest among industrialised countries.

When the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan was defeated in 2009 and the Democratic Party of Japan came to power, political analysts and pundits celebrated. Many thought that a truly competitive party system had finally arrived with the end of the LDP’s monopoly on power.

It represented a new hope for a politically paralysed and economically stagnant Japan. The party pledged to make people-oriented policy and lead Japan away from the United States towards a foreign policy anchored in Asia, especially China and South Korea.

Instead what we witnessed was internal political division, a lack of party room unity, political scandals and ministerial resignations, policy stagnation, legislative gridlocks and a revolving door prime ministership: three prime ministers in just three years, from Yukio Hatoyama to Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda. This was a duplication of the LDP pattern: three prime ministers in quick succession from 2006-2009.

Yoshihiko Noda after winning the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) presidential election last year. EPA/ Everett Kennedy Brown

Having lost the confidence of voters as Prime Minister Noda’s popularity nosedived below 20% and under mounting pressure from the LDP, Noda announced a snap poll for the lower house scheduled for 16 December, some eight months before its full four-year term.

Early polls suggest that the LDP will regain power, probably in coalition with some minor parties and DPJ will once again be relegated to opposition.

This kind of DPJ defeat was hard to imagine just three years ago when it was elected to power with a thumping majority in the lower house of Japan’s parliament. But no one would have predicted a spring back from the LDP so soon after its crushing electoral defeat.

It is unlikely that post-election Japanese politics will become any less messy than what it is today, as a new group led by two hawkish nationalists has been formed to challenge the two established political parties. The Japan Restoration Party led by Shintaro Ishihara, an influential and popular octogenarian politician, who gave up us his Tokyo gubernatorial position and Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka city have joined hands to form a “third force” in Japanese politics. But their policy orientation remains unclear and ambivalent.

Although arrival of new legitimate political parties and greater electoral competition should be welcomed in a robust democracy, this third force is most certainly likely to make Japan’s politics more chaotic.

Political chaos has also got huge implications for Japan’s foreign policy. It is not clear whether post Noda Japan will move towards the Trans Pacific Partnership which Noda prefers or whether it will push for an Asia-wide free trade agreement or move forward with a China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement.

If frequent changes in the leadership continue, as occurred during both the LDP and DPJ governments in the past six years, it will be politically difficult to conclude negotiations on many of the ongoing free trade agreement proposals.

Australia and Japan have been negotiating a free trade agreement since April 2007 but it remains elusive due to political instability in Japan and frequent changes in prime ministers and relevant ministers.

Is this new election going to make any difference to Japan’s political chaos, policy paralysis and leadership crises? The plain answer seems to be no. If anything, it could make matters worse.

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