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1997 all over again

August 31, 2009

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex permalink
    August 31, 2009 7:34 pm

    Exactly. I spent all evening watching the rolling news coverage and telling my girlfriend how much it reminded me of 1997 in England. Fingers crossed, but I’m not getting my hopes up too high!

  2. remora permalink
    September 1, 2009 12:23 pm

    thought-provoking and well written. (I wish you would write more – when you get the time)


  3. Mum permalink
    September 2, 2009 6:33 am

    I suspect your next to last paragraph could be written after the next general election here and still be true!! We will see.

  4. Ian permalink
    September 2, 2009 5:58 pm

    This didn’t get a huge press coverage over here (which was suprising given the importance of thr Japanese economy) but I did manage to see a little. The comparisons with 1997 are striking – apart from there was no D-ream backtrack. What was the sound of the eelction?
    Are you allowed to vote? Or is your residency limited to paying taxes?

    • September 3, 2009 7:46 am

      Alas, no musical promise that things “can only get better”. Just a vague Obama-n assurance that “Change” was on the horizon. As for the sound of the election, it was what it always is – goons driving up and down the road pleading for votes through megaphones. Actually, not quite as irritating as D-ream, but a close call.

      I can’t vote, no. Would need citizenship for that. I’m limited to paying taxes and keeping quiet.


  1. Japundit

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