Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Voting for a Qualified Majority

In 1983 it was election time in the United Kingdom. After two rough years for Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Prime Minister elected in 1979, she had found popularity as the self-styled defender of the Falkland Islands.

Francis Pym, the Foreign Secretary at the time (a role that was significantly involved in the Falkland's conflict) appeared on the UK panel current-affairs television show Question Time. Talking about the approaching election, he famously stated "Landslides don't on the whole produce successful governments".

Mrs Thatcher was not pleased, although she had little to fear. The Conservatives won a thumping majority and Mr Pym was removed from post two days later. Nonetheless this unease with power is a common theme amongst politicians. More than two decades later, when the hapless Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office, he was widely praised by his own back-benchers for proposing measures that transferred power away from the executive and towards the legislature. We have been trained to think of a concentration of power for too long, or in too unbalanced a proportion to be an undesirable occurrence.

So it will come as a surprise to many that the Liberal Democratic Party (自由民主党) has been in power in Japan almost non-stop since its founding in 1955. It was not until 2007 that the party lost control of the upper house - for the first time ever.

What does this say for Japanese politics? What ability is there for such a model of representation to reflect citizens' changing expectations of the state. The answer is not clear cut - Japan is far from a dictatorship. It is a (quite) vibrant, democratic country. Yet the voters have continually voted for the LDP, despite rising dissatisfaction. Most notably in 2005, in the face of widespread frustration at the glacial pace of reform (brought to ahead by the attempted privatisation of Japan Post), Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎) snatched a victory after a dramatic dissolution of parliament, after Mr Koizumi successfully painted the opposition as reckless over their plans to pull out from Iraq and not ready for government.

This time again the obituary of the LDP is being written. The Democratic Party of Japan (民主党) has a real chance, with polls showing a 20% gap now between the parties. The election is still weeks away, and all could change, but your writer hopes that this is the time for Japan to finally show its true democratic credentials. Be it huge majorities or single-party rule, power vested in one party without suitable balance is bad for democracy, and it is notable that Japan has failed to enact some market liberalisation that would have served it well as its less efficient manufacturing companies placed a drain on its economy. Worse, long, large-majority government has left Japanese politics too controlled by special interests. Structural problems (notably the ageing population and lack of support for women to enter to workforce) need support from a government, and the LDP seems out of ideas, or too torporific to enact them.

So WATM wishes the DPJ well, and will be following the election closely (not that any election doesn't get closely watched by the WATM team). We're watching you, Swedish Social Democratic Party.

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