Japan’s Victors Warily Prepare for Power
By MARTIN FACKLER
Published: September 12, 2009
TOKYO — As the newly elected Democratic Party works to assemble what will be only the second government in Japan’s postwar history not to be led by the Liberal Democratic Party, it is treading carefully to avoid infighting that could split the ideologically diverse party or drive a wedge between it and its coalition allies.
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Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press
Yukio Hatoyama, left, is expected to be Japan’s next prime minister as leader of the Democrats.
Times Topics: Japan
Since smashing the Liberal Democrats’ nearly uninterrupted half-century monopoly on power two weeks ago, the center-left Democrats and their leader, Yukio Hatoyama, 62, have hurried to fill top posts in the party and his incoming cabinet and to cobble together a coalition with other parties before their government’s formal accession to power on Sept. 16.
The party is working under unrelenting scrutiny from the news media and from Japanese citizens still affected by the bitter aftertaste of their only previous experience with non-Liberal Democratic rule since 1955. That government, which took power in 1993, lasted less than a year before collapsing amid bickering and defections.
Nightly news broadcasts, which are dominated by detailed coverage of the political maneuverings within the newly formed coalition, frequently feature veterans of the earlier failed government who offer lessons from their brief, rocky time in power.
While there have been no major bumps so far, warning signs are already appearing.
On Wednesday, when Mr. Hatoyama and the heads of two smaller anti-laissez-faire parties, the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party, agreed to form a coalition government, they left unresolved disagreements over the status of 50,000 American service members in Japan. Mr. Hatoyama has spoken in vague terms of re-examining the American military bases, while still trying to remain close to Washington, but the leftist Social Democrats want the bases removed.
There have also been signs of division in the Democratic Party since Mr. Hatoyama gave a top party position to one of the party’s most powerful men, Ichiro Ozawa, in what analysts say was an attempt to keep his loyalty. But in doing so, Mr. Hatoyama raised concerns by other Democrats that the party was embracing a shadowy kingmaker whose money-oriented political style closely resembled that of the Liberal Democrats they defeated.
Those critics fear that Mr. Ozawa, 67, will compete with Mr. Hatoyama for control of the party; Mr. Ozawa was a member of the 1993-1994 government, and political analysts have blamed his clashes with other coalition members for contributing to its demise. On Thursday, many Democrats lobbied to have Seiji Maehara, a young proponent of clean politics, included in the new cabinet to help offset Mr. Ozawa’s influence.
Mr. Hatoyama has tried to dispel concerns that he is creating competing centers of power.
“This will not create a dual power structure,” Mr. Hatoyama, the presumptive next prime minister, told reporters. He added that policy would be set by his cabinet and not the party.
Still, the barest hints of fissures within the party have made news in a nation keen to see if the Democrats can pull off the daunting task of essentially dragging the country into a true multiparty system.
The 1993-94 government, which included eight small parties and groups and was first led by Morihiro Hosokawa as prime minister, lasted only 11 months. Its quick collapse drove disappointed Japanese voters back into the arms of the Liberal Democrats, where they stayed until the election.
While there are many differences between now and 1993 — the biggest being the fact that a single, large party, the Democratic Party, has beaten the Liberal Democrats — the mistakes of that earlier government still cast a shadow, according to veterans of that coalition.
“It took 16 years to get this second chance,” Mr. Hosokawa, who retired from politics in 1998, said in an interview. “Lack of cohesiveness has always plagued efforts to build a second big political party.”
Mr. Hosokawa said the Democrats’ main weak point might be their broad manifesto of campaign promises, which would be hard to achieve quickly enough to satisfy Japan’s recession-weary voters. The party is trying to reinvigorate Japan’s sclerotic system of government by empowering elected politicians and consumers over the bureaucracy and industry, and to blunt the pain from globalization with a stronger social safety net.
Instead, Mr. Hosokawa said, focusing on a few high-profile policies would make it easier to keep the party on the same track and offer voters results.
“They need a single flag to stand under,” he said.
Adding to the difficulty will be the fact that Mr. Hatoyama heads a party that is broad and often hazy in its identity.
The party was formed in 1998 as a motley grouping of former Socialists and defectors from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Since then, it has tried to forge a unique culture and identity, with mixed success.
By finally winning power, the party has been robbed of its main source of unity, say political analysts and former politicians. The glue that held the Democrats together has been a shared desire to end the Liberal Democrats’ rule.
“The Democrats are like wet, unformed concrete, which still lacks a mold,” said Atsuo Ito, an independent political analyst who wrote a book on the party. “Just holding power may be enough to keep the party together at first, but eventually the party will need shared beliefs to keep from flying apart.”