Japanese voters have finally tired of their banana republic politicians
By Julian Ryall in Tokyo
Japan's forthcoming election could force its ruling party from power for only the second time in more than 50 years. The question many Japanese are asking is: Why has it taken so long?
The Liberal Democratic Party seems certain to lose its majority in the Lower House, matching its 2007 defeat in the Upper House, when the country goes to the polls on November 9.
Defeat would be a body blow to the LDP, a political machine that has ruled Japan for all but 10 months since it first formed a government in 1955. Imagine in Britain if the Conservatives had been in power since Anthony Eden became prime minister.
Yet with a revolving-door policy on its leaders, an apparent inability to deal with the country's economic malaise and a deep and growing distrust among the public, why are many still not counting out the LDP? Does its hold on power make Japan more akin to a banana republic than the world's second largest economy?
The resignation of prime minister Yasuo Fukuda on September 1, which triggered the latest leadership race, led by Taro Aso, follows the pattern of administrations lasting about a year. The only leader to buck that trend was Junichiro Koizumi, who held on for five and a half years.
But, said Steven Reed, a professor of Japanese politics at Chuo University, that only shows how unpopular the party had become. Koizumi relentlessly attacked his own party. His economic reforms were painful to big business and therefore agonising to the LDP's old boy network, who relied on the largesse of companies, particularly in the construction sector, to fund their election campaigns.
"If you look at the election results, it is clear that Koizumi was only popular with the voters when he was actually tackling the LDP itself, the factions that opposed his efforts to get a grip on the economy," said Prof Reed.
Koizumi did just that with the privatisation of Japan Post, which gave the people a stake for the first time in the state-owned banking, insurance and postal service, to the fury of the bureaucrats and businessmen who had grown rich from it.
He won a stunning election victory shortly afterwards and a year later, in 2006, handed over to his successor, confident that he had remoulded the LDP into a free market movement more responsive to the people.
But Shinzo Abe, and then Fukuda, proved bitter disappointments to the reformers, and the old guard reasserted control.
The turnaround has pleased the business community, and America, whose priority is to keep a traditionally minded LDP government in Tokyo as a bulwark against the increasingly militarised - and not necessarily friendly - nations in north-east Asia. China has been flexing its military muscles with double-digit growth in defence spending for two decades; Russia is testing the waters with an increased naval and aerial presence; and North Korea is as stable as only a nuclear power run by a man who uses drug-running and currency forgery as instruments of national policy can be.
But there is no question that the Japanese public is tired of the LDP. They may not blame the government directly for the rising price of food and fuel, but there is definitely a feeling that enough is enough.
Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Kyoto's Doshisha University, said: "We have been operating on borrowed time, flying on the wings of a cheap yen and close to zero interest rates. But, with the sub-prime mess, the cheap yen is coming to an end and all that masked the true state of the economy has come away. It's not a pretty picture at all."
There is little expectation that the new LDP leader, to be announced on September 22, will tackle these problems head-on, she said, anticipating further efforts to "muddle through without identifying the problems or addressing the key causes which will make them part of the problem rather than any solution".
The opposition Democratic Party of Japan is poised to take power after November's election. But if the LDP's factions have been in a state of disarray, that is nothing compared to the DPJ. Formed by the merger of four opposition parties 10 years ago, its critics say it is little more than a party of convenience for individuals with widely differing aims and ambitions.
If an LDP administration lasts about 12 months, it is likely that a DPJ one will collapse even faster as the bickering becomes destructive.
At which point, a suitably chastened LDP will re-emerge, under a new leader, to assume the role to which it believes it was born.
The real test of whether it will learn anything from its brief spell in the wilderness is whether it rediscovers its reforming zeal and genuinely liberalises the economy, or slips back into its custom of running the country for the benefit of itself and its cronies.