January 14, 2009 / 4:00 AM / 9 years ago

Chance to rule a big challenge for Japan Democrats

7 Min Read

Japan's main opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa holds a New Year news conference at the party headquarters in Tokyo January 4, 2009. For Japan's main opposition party, winning this year's election and ending decades of one-party rule might be the easy part.Issei Kato

TOKYO (Reuters) - For Japan's main opposition party, winning this year's election and ending decades of one-party rule might be the easy part.

The 10-year-old Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has its best shot ever at taking power in an election expected by September, but the untested group faces some big hurdles to governing successfully if and when voters give it a chance.

Taking over the reins from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled almost without a break since its founding in 1955, would be daunting at the best of times.

But the need to cope with a deepening recession in the world's second-biggest economy raises the stakes in Japan's struggle to end its prolonged political stalemate.

"We know the LDP can't govern, but we don't know whether the Democrats can," said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo. "There is no precedent."

Prime Minister Taro Aso, his approval ratings below 20 percent, has ruled out an early snap poll. But analysts say he could call an election in late April or May after getting additional spending bills and the next budget through parliament.

Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has said he expects to form a coalition with two small partners, complicating policy decisions. Too slender an opposition majority could spark jockeying that results in a rejig of lawmakers' party alliances.

Still, analysts say the often fractious Democrats stand a chance of governing successfully -- if they win a clear enough mandate, suppress internal squabbling and cope with expected efforts by career bureaucrats to protect their turf.

The Democrats and their allies already control parliament's upper house, where they have frustrated government policies, creating what has become known as a 'twisted parliament'.

"Given what we know right now, it looks like the twisted parliament would be resolved, so they would have the conditions to govern in principle," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Foolish Consistency

A mix of former LDP members, one-time socialists and younger conservatives, the Democrats' tendency towards squabbling has fanned concern that they would waste precious political capital in internal feuding over policies.

Antipathy to party chief Ichiro Ozawa's leadership style, seen by critics as autocratic, is another flashpoint.

But the desire to stay in power once there can provide a strong incentive to work out disputes, as shown by the LDP's ability to rule for decades despite being home to lawmakers with divergent views on economic, social and security policies.

When the LDP was formed in 1955, many criticised it as a marriage of factions for political expediency, noted Chuo University's Reed. "The error was not in the analysis, but in assuming that you need consistency to govern," he said.

Ozawa, a former LDP heavyweight who bolted in 1993 and helped briefly oust the party from power, has made wresting control of policy from bureaucrats a top priority, arguing that officials put their ministries above national interests and efficiency.

That would appear to put his party on course for a clash with career officials that would make governing tough, but a clear opposition mandate would make it hard for bureaucrats to be overtly obstructive, analysts said.

A number of Democratic lawmakers are also former bureaucrats, providing communication channels and expertise.

"The Democrats are having fairly deep discussions with the finance ministry," said Takashi Sasaki, a political science professor at Gakushuin University. "They (the bureaucrats) are thinking about their own survival and they could also be a source of new ideas."

Nuance, Not Lurch

A Democratic government would be unlikely to lurch sharply to the left, given its hefty chunk of conservative members.

They would, however, probably put more stress on domestic social issues while trying to forge a foreign policy more independent of close security ally Washington.

"When it comes to social issues such as health care or labour policy, the DPJ tends to have more MPs with expertise from a different perspective than the LDP," Nakano said.

"Ideologically, the parties are not very different but the DPJ is diverse with a broader left wing and if they make policy input, small differences may not be insignificant."

Much criticism of the Democrats has centred on the possibility they would go on a spending spree that would inflate Japan's already bulging public debt, currently some 1.5 times times GDP and the biggest among advanced industrial countries.

But with the LDP already putting fiscal reform on the back burner as it seeks to cushion the recession, analysts said there was less reason to single out the DPJ for criticism on the topic.

"Any government might preside over mushrooming debt and it just might happen to be the DPJ, so we would never know how different it would have been under the LDP," Nakano said.

The Democrats argue they can stimulate the economy by reallocating spending more efficiently, and Ozawa has said they would not raise the 5 percent consumption tax at least until after excising wasteful spending.[ID:nT57466]

Without some quick achievements, public support might well dwindle. At the same time, hanging onto power long enough to draft their own budget next year will be crucial.

But how quickly the DPJ can implement policies will depend partly on whether the budget for 2009/10 from April 1 has passed.

"They may have to work with Aso's budget, so the question is what else can they do," Sasaki said.

"It's someone else's budget and that makes it difficult."

For all the doubts, voters may be willing to give the Democrats a chance. "It's more a case of being fed up with the LDP than of having expectations for DPJ policies," Sasaki said.

"The LDP is exhausted politically. It has ruled for a long time without competition and in many ways, things have been too easy for them."

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