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It was supposed to be the start of a revolution -- almost exactly two years ago, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) formally took power in Tokyo. The sclerotic Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had run Japan for more than half a century, had clearly run out of ideas. Since 1990, it had elected and then promptly discarded no fewer than 12 prime ministers. After its landslide electoral victory in 2009, a fresh party in power promised new thinking and a new era of stability by establishing a true two-party system. Many even argued that Tokyo could use the moment to emerge from its torpor and keep the world's then second-largest economy from becoming a global has-been.
That revolution never happened. The DPJ has effectively squandered its time in office. It has already discarded two prime ministers of its own: Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan. Core campaign promises such as transferring power from the entrenched bureaucrats to elected officials have been abandoned, along with many of its ambitious welfare programs. As Japan reeled from the March earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear disaster, rather than tend to the massive crisis, the DPJ preoccupied itself with infighting, squabbling over campaign promises and how to dethrone the unpopular and antagonistic Kan. Lest one need proof of the costs of this stasis: Witness the astonishingly glacial pace of reconstruction and a more inward-looking nation that is increasingly inert on global matters.
No wonder Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who took office on September 2, argued that this is the "last chance" for the DPJ to regain the trust of its constituents. Yet he may be too late. Having served only nine days in office, Yoshio Hachiro, the industry minister, resigned after referring to the evacuated areas near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant as a "town of death"; he later joked to reporters about the radioactivity. He was replaced by Yukio Edano, formerly the chief cabinet secretary.
Hachiro's comments may have been insensitive, but the overblown reaction points to one of modern Japan's problems: a popular obsession with petty scandals and gaffes. That obsession, coupled with the country's hostile media culture, has helped toss out the last five prime ministers in just five years. For decades, Japanese politicians have grown accustomed to sniping members of the governing party over embarrassing blunders and money scandals to score easy political points. The myopic media, for their part, spurred this trend by focusing their coverage on political infighting, rather than providing context and analysis on policy.
But Japan's problems run deeper than a corrosive media culture. The real problem lies at the heart of the DPJ machine, which, like the latter days of the LDP, is dysfunctional, divided, and unprincipled. This means that even if Noda manages to tackle short-term challenges, such as containing Japan's snowballing debt and its rising currency, his party will remain hamstrung by structural problems. The DPJ has long been criticized as a ragtag bunch, and the three prime ministers it has produced attest to that fact. Hatoyama is a centrist, third-way politician. Kan is a former civic activist with socialist tendencies. And Noda is a staunch conservative -- both fiscally and diplomatically. Among them, there is no consensus on the critical issue of fiscal policy or what to do about the party's campaign promises. Many DPJ politicians are disgruntled with Noda's plan to double the sales tax to fund social security costs in this aging society. The party cannot even agree on first-order policy questions.
Since its founding in 1998, the DPJ has papered over its differences in pursuit of one goal: ending the LDP's half-century of rule. Once that was accomplished, however, cracks immediately began to emerge. After Hatoyama and former DPJ Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa, the party's controversial master strategist, resigned from their respective posts last year following money scandals and the mishandling of the Okinawa base issue, Kan sidelined the party's powerful kingmaker, triggering a feud between his and Ozawa's loyalists.
The result was chaos. The DPJ backtracked on its biggest promise of creating a new political system in which politicians, instead of Tokyo's risk-averse bureaucrats, call the shots on policy. Kan and Noda, both former finance ministers, are now criticized as lapdogs of Tokyo's powerful mandarins, chiefly because of their willingness to raise taxes. After taking power, Noda immediately dropped the party's anti-bureaucracy banner -- he begged top bureaucrats for their cooperation and is even considering reinstalling a forum that the DPJ has long criticized as a symbol of the nation's bureaucracy-led decision-making process.
One can argue that all of this is in response to Japan's difficult economic and political realities. Indeed, Noda's moves have been pragmatic and sensible. But considering that the Democrats abandoned their core principles, including government reform and welfare programs, the party has jettisoned not only the possibility of a productive future but its identity. As it is now, the DPJ has little rationale to remain as one entity other than for the sake of staying in power -- a cause for more disgruntlement from the opposition and mayhem.
With the DPJ following so dispiritingly in the LDP's footsteps, Japan's political class really has only one good option left if it hopes to rescue the country -- namely, to take a page from the Liberal Democrats' former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose mantra was "destroy the LDP," and self destruct. This may sound counterintuitive for a party that finally managed to win power only two years ago. But Koizumi's tactics, in their own twisted and ironic way, helped the LDP in the long term by forcing the geriatric party to wean itself from its dependency on wasteful pork and do away with its old practice of backroom dealing. Though his assault on his own party may ultimately have led to its electoral defeat in 2009, the LDP spent the years since working on a kind of political rehabilitation, redefining itself around a fresher, more coherent program (conservative reform, in this case).
The DPJ has two ways to embark on an analogous process -- to either re-create itself while in power (if it is lucky enough to survive the inevitable sniping from the opposition and the media) or, if it falls, to do so in the opposition. Such a process would mean finding a common agenda that would build solidarity and a new identity for the party. So far, however, the odds of this happening seem slim, given the fact that the DPJ does not even have a guiding policy statement, as LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki recently pointed out.
So there remains just one option: to dismantle the DPJ. The main virtue of such a move is that it would trigger a political realignment in Tokyo. Given the smaller ideological differences in present-day Tokyo, the realignment will likely focus less on left-right differences but center on the different approaches to handling the economy and dealing with the challenges of an aging society. A substantial sum of DPJ lawmakers, those emphasizing economic growth and fiscal responsibility, would likely decamp to some new organization, while those that remained could reconstitute their party around welfare spending -- or vice versa. Another fault line could be government reform. Ozawa, who envisions shifting power from the bureaucracy, could bolt the party with his followers to form a new party, or even merge with other like-minded forces.
Given the LDP's recent success in redefining itself as a true conservative party, the process might produce something Japan has never really enjoyed before: a political system occupied by clearly defined parties that offer voters a real choice between alternatives. It would also lead to a more stable form of politics, with parties competing with each other under clear policy differences, rather than resorting to political theater.
Of course, none of this will be easy, and Japan's aggressive media are unlikely to help. But Tokyo should recall another of Koizumi's mantras, "with reform comes pain," and take heart in the unspoken corollary: no pain, no gain.