Japan – like India – prides itself as being one of the great free democracies of Asia.
The constitution of the ruling party, Jiminto, or the LDP, commits it to being a liberal political organisation which advocates democracy and basic human rights. It will “strive to make positive contributions to world peace and the prosperity of mankind.”
However, in my view, the process by which Jiminto has just picked its new leader is inconsistent with these noble ambitions and negatively affects the nation’s reputation. It raises the question: Is Japan really committed to asking its citizens to choose their national leader?
Lack of choice
Following Shinzo Abe’s announcement on August 28th, 2020 that he would resign for health reasons, it was down to just 535 people to pick his successor.
Only members of the Japanese parliament and some representatives from the prefectures were allowed to vote. Of course, they were all members of Jiminto.
There was not a wide choice of candidates. Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba stood against Mr Suga. There was no option to pick a woman, such as the popular mayor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike.
The debate on policy lasted for only a couple of days, during which time the three men (the youngest of whom was born in 1957) offered a broad consensus on most of the key domestic and economic issues. This was unsurprisingly, as they have all worked closely together for decades.
Yoshihide Suga successfully succeeded Shinzo Abe as Japan’s prime minister on September 16th, after winning support of the party elite. Sadly, this was inevitable. On September 1st, a full two weeks before the vote, Keiko Iizuka, a senior political writer at the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper told a meeting of the Japan Society of the UK that “it was all over” as far as the Jiminto leadership race was concerned.
She explained that the senior politicians which represent the different factions of Jiminto had picked Mr Suga to succeed Mr Abe and there was therefore no other candidate who could possibly beat him. She said that the debates about policy and strategy had no bearing on who would be the next prime minister.
As a keen observer of Asian politics, I was struck by the contrast between the Japanese experience this summer and that of India in the spring of 2019.
The Indian election was held over seven phases and scores of parties fielded candidates. People of all ages, castes and backgrounds stood for office, including many women. More than 600 million people voted and the turnout was the highest on record.
Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) claimed a landslide victory. There were some allegations of corruption and vote rigging. But even Mr Modi’s most vehement opponents could not deny that political issues had been thoroughly discussed and debated – often in very passionate ways.
I have noticed that Indian politicians tend to make extravagant promises which they cannot fulfil and this leads to frustration and disillusionment among voters. Nevertheless, most Indians maintain a yearning to make the democratic system work and are keen to have their say on how they are governed.
This is not always the case in Japan. “All the important decisions seem to be stitched up by old men in Tokyo,” a young woman once said to me. “Why should I care about what they are up to?”
Go to the polls
I believe there is a way in which Yoshihide Suga could inject some much needed energy into Japanese politics: he should call a general election this autumn.
Officially, he could stay on until the autumn of 2021, when Jiminto’s term in office is up. But if he waits until then, he will have to face voters after a postponed – and much reduced – Olympic Games. (In fact, the Olympics may have to be cancelled altogether because of coronavirus.) However, if as a relatively fresh prime minister – albeit aged 71 – he dissolves the parliament this autumn, he could seek a clear mandate to deal with Japan’s domestic problems, as well international challenges.
The most crucial issue is how to protect citizens during the current health crisis and prevent Japan from entering another prolonged economic downturn.
An easy target
If the democratic process worked properly, it should be easy for the opposition to beat Mr Suga. He is not a charismatic leader nor a great public speaker. He is also tainted by being a “yes” man for Shinzo Abe, who did not fulfill his pledges to revive the economy and reform the constitution.
The Japanese government’s response to Covid-19 has revealed systemic inefficiency and lack of foresight. Shinzo Abe’s popularity fell as the disease spread. (Japan has about 77,000 cases of Covid-19 and about a thousand people have died, compared to more than five million cases and 83,000 deaths in India, according to the World Health Organisation.) The Japanese government’s problems should be advantageous to opposition parties. Two of the big ones, the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), merged in the summer, in the hope of putting up a united front at the next election. But whatever they do ahead of the polls, I do not believe they will be able to win, even against an unimpressive incumbent like Mr Suga.
A broken system
Since 1955, there have only been two instances in which Mr Suga’s Jiminto party was voted out of power and in both cases it managed to wrestle back control within a few years. The whole structure of Japan’s political system is designed to keep the same party in office for long periods. Even though there are frequent elections, which seem to be free and fair, Japan has ended up with a one-party system, largely because Jiminto has tweaked the rules to keep it that way.
People seem to accept this state of affairs because it brings stability and a pervasive air of calm. It also suits the hierarchical nature of Japanese society and fits with its reverence for the wisdom of old age. There is currently no wave of populism in Japan and Mr Suga is presenting himself as a gentle reformer rather than a bold iconoclast. Yet I note that there is a clause near the start of Jiminto’s constitution which says: “The party looks to the future by committing to ongoing reform.” We can see from this summer’s leadership race that reform is needed within the party. I believe this should be extended to the whole of Japan’s moribund political system. Unless there is profound change in the way the leaders engage with the electorate, it is unlikely that Japan will be regarded as a true democracy.
(Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a regular columnist for The Economic Times.)