Nuclear fallout on Japan’s elections

Tags: Op-ed
Nuclear fallout on Japan’s elections
AFTER EFFECT: Liberal Democratic Party president Shinzo Abe (L) and Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda (R) during debates for the general election at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on November 30
The Japanese will vote a new Parliament on December 16. This is almost one year earlier than the term of the present government runs. However, prime minister Yoshihiko Noda had no other option than to call for a mid-term election, as during the past half year, the opposition had been able to paralyse his government. Important legislation could only be passed, once the prime minister had made it clear that he would soon call an election.

Autumn 2009 had seen the opposition sweep to power. Over five decades of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP), seemed to have come to an end. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), then led by Yukio Hatoyama, had a clear mandate to rule and to take the country into a new era. What had begun with high hopes, particularly among the younger Japanese, among women and among all those who had had enough of the LDP rule, was to end in tears. After only one year, Hatoyama threw in his towel. His successor, Naoto Kan, did not do any better and within one year, he was also out of the position as prime minister. Within two years, the DPJ had lost credibility amongst the Japanese electorate. It looked as if all the hope for a new beginning in Japanese politics had suddenly vanished.

The DPJ rode to power on the promise to get rid of the cosy relationship of politicians with the national bureaucracy that had been the hallmark of LDP governments. However, as the new ministers had little experience in running a government, it soon became evident that they depended even more on the bureaucrats than their predecessors. The nuclear accident in Fukushima caused by a massive tsunami and earthquake on March 11, 2011 would have overwhelmed any government. However, the mistakes in dealing with the catastrophe and particularly the irresponsible attitude of the state-owned company TEPCO that runs the power plant, added to the general dissatisfaction with the DPJ government. Suddenly, the issue of nuclear power became the central political theme that splits the Japanese public into several camps.

When Yoshihiko Noda became prime minister in September 2011, six months after the disaster, the nuclear fallout was still looming large over the political landscape. In the aftermath of Fukushima, Japan had temporarily halted all power production by nuclear plants. In spite of dire warnings by the industry that this would lead to severe power shortage, the power supply was adequate. The biggest impact of the re-employment of thermal power plants resulted in the Japanese balance of payment turning negative, as the country has to import massive supplies of oil and gas to fire the power stations. Last summer, two of the fifty nuclear power plants went back on the net. In the eyes of those who are fundamentally opposed to nuclear power and who traditionally voted DPJ, the prime minister and his government looked indecisive, even unreliable.

While the ratings for the government tanked, the prime minister came under increasing pressure to call for early elections. The opposition, namely the LDP managed to block important political decisions and at some time Japan even faced its own “budget cliff”. The LDP insisted that the support the government required for crucial legislation would only come forward if prime minister Noda committed himself to call the elections rather sooner than later. Finally, in November, the pressure became too big and Noda decided to fix the date for the elections to the Lower House of the Japanese Parliament on December 16.

Japan has a parliamentary democracy with a majority of seats being directly elected by the constituencies. 180 of the 480 the seats in the Lower House are distributed on the basis of the proportion of votes that have been gained by each party. This rather complex system makes it almost impossible that on December 16 any one party will win an absolute majority in the house. At present, it looks as if the LDP get win by far the biggest number of seats but will fall short of an absolute majority. Meanwhile, the DPJ is in the doldrums and even diehard party workers are despondent. The project that was to change Japanese politics for good is in a shambles -- only three years after it had been launched.

An important share of the seats will, this time, go to smaller parties, some of which have been formed only a short while ago. It is significant that Japan up till now did not have a green, ecological party of national significance. People with a green agenda have been winning seats in local and prefectural assemblies but not in the national Parliament. This is certainly going to change on December 16. The smaller parties that vie for the support of the voters cover a wide spectrum when it comes to nuclear power. Some see no alternative to nuclear power; others present the voters with different time horizons until when they want to phase out nuclear power for good. What is certain, the nuclear fallout of Fukushima will have a significant impact on the outcome of the elections.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)


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