1997 all over again
As night turned to the morning of 2 May, 1997, I sat in my living room in London, in front of the television, and watched as the political ground shifted, as a conservative country ousted its Conservative government after almost two decades of power.
Even ministers and former ministers were losing their seats – Rifkind went, then Lamont, then Mellor – and in the early morning when bigwig Portillo lost, the magnitude of the government’s rejection became clear.
Swayable conservative voters had swayed en masse and the incumbents had been swept out of power by a landslide.
The Tories had ‘only’ been in power for 18 years. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had, until last night, been ruling the roost almost uninterrupted since their establishment 54 years ago. The scale of the Democratic Party’s (DPJ) victory, or more precisely, the LDP’s loss cannot be overstated.
And while all polls predicted the end of the Aso government, it wasn’t until the big names started falling that the LDP talking heads on TV really started to wince.
Japanese voters, in effect, get two votes – one for an individual candidate in their area, and another party vote for a proportional representation pool.
And that PR pool is now the only hope for some very big names who lost their seats.
Famously drunken Shoichi Nakagawa (do you remember him?) went, finance minister Kaoru Yosano too, then former defense minister Fumio Kyuma, and Toshiki Kaifu then became the first former Prime Minister to lose his seat since 1963.
The parade continued with former defense minister Yuriko Koike, former finance minister Bummei Ibuki, former foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura, and the heavyweight former LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa.
By morning, the parliamentary LDP had shrunk from 300 to 119.
Of course a good number of those who voted for the DPJ, like those UK voters who voted Labour in 1997, will simply have been disaffected conservatives fed up with being ignored by their party and intent on punishment. And even if DPJ rule turns out to not to be significantly different from what came before, that is at least one important lesson for Japanese politicians to take from this election. Japanese voters, who have shown no particular desire to punish ne’er-do-well politicians in the past, have shown their teeth, and the incoming DPJ will do well to keep in mind what the LDP ignored.
But it appears that while many will have voted negatively, many more have chosen to reject the corruption of the ancien regime in the hope of cleaner government. They’ve chosen optimism over fear, recognised that some sort of change is necessary. Whether they will really get that, or whether the optimism will turn out to have been misguided, I don’t know enough about it to say one way or the other.
But the Japanese electorate has taken an enormous leap of faith. I hope the landing is soft.